Comparative disadvantage

When I make the case for greater local self-reliance in agriculture I quite often come across the counter-argument that Britain hasn’t been self-sufficient in food since the early 19th century. This is true, but what’s not so often noted is that we’re now not self-sufficient in different kinds of foods to those we weren’t self-sufficient in 200-odd years ago. Back then we were self-sufficient in most things except for staple grains, whereas now we’re mostly self-sufficient in staple grains while we’re not self-sufficient in most other things, our greatest food-trade deficit being fresh fruit and vegetables.

The reasons for this switch aren’t hard to find. As a result of crop-breeding, mechanisation, the development of artificial fertilisers and other agro-chemicals, along with the EU’s productivist aims and subsidy regimens, cereal productivity nationally, and per hectare or per hour of human labour, is now much greater than it was in the early 1800s. So despite a six-fold population increase since then, we’ve become pretty much self-reliant in cereal grains – though it’s a fragile self-reliance, based to a considerable degree on imported fossil fuels. But the cost of labour and the opportunity-cost of agricultural land is now also much greater, while the relative cost of energy is much lower – all of which mean it’s cheaper to import bulky, labour-intensive products like fruit and vegetables than to produce them domestically as we did a couple of centuries ago.

Wait, scroll back. Did somebody mention the EU? Britain voted to leave that creaking old juggernaut years ago and then struck out boldly on its own, right? The answer to that is yes and no, my friend, yes and no. Yes, we did narrowly vote to leave the EU more than two years ago, but no we haven’t left yet. Instead, we’ve had two years of epic fudging, as the government has tried and largely failed to work out how to leave the EU without tanking the economy, while simultaneously dealing with vast amounts of other fallout, such as the Irish border question. Perhaps I’ll write another post soon that runs the rule over this monumental waste of political energy, but here I’d like to focus on just one aspect of the aforementioned fallout, namely post-Brexit agricultural policy.

The government’s consultation paper Health and Harmony: the Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit set out its post CAP policy thinking, receiving a response from me and, apparently, about 43,999 other people and organisations. I don’t think I was the only one to notice that there was precious little about food or farming in the paper. The government seems to be planning some kind of environmental payments scheme to farmers on a ‘public money for public goods’ basis, but the notorious single farm payment subsidy regimen is soon to be history, with nothing to replace it. This was predicted long ago on this website – not that it was a hard prediction to make.

Well, the SFP was a bad scheme, and it won’t be mourned by many. Though much as folks like to bang on about the way it enriched people who didn’t need enriching and turned farmers into subsidy-junkies, the truth is the real junkies were retailers and consumers grown reliant on rock-bottom farm-gate prices. I won’t further plumb that particular line here, but it’s worth noting the implications of the SFP’s demise. There’s to be no emphasis on national food production or security, instead just a thoroughly neoliberal commitment to making British agriculture globally competitive. Which it probably won’t be across almost all dimensions of food production, with the possible exceptions of things like whisky and smoked salmon. My guess is that in the short-term we’ll see farmers getting out of farming and becoming landscape managers, while retailers and consumers continue getting their cheap food fix by importing more from abroad, regardless of the longer-term consequences – something like the ‘bad rewilding’ scenario I outlined some time ago. Farms will prioritise chasing money for wildlife management and visitor attractions, while we export the responsibility for producing our food to other countries willing to sell on global markets (and possibly less anxious to protect what remains of their own wildlife).

Nothing wrong with all that, according to mainstream economic theory. If each country focuses on what it’s best at producing and imports what other countries are best at producing, then everyone gains – this was all explained long ago by David Ricardo in the theory of ‘comparative advantage’ set out in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817).

Comparative advantage is still routinely invoked as a justification for free trade today, so it remains sadly necessary to explain why it’s a poor foundation for contemporary economies. If investors who are unable to freely put up their capital outside their own country – which was generally the case when Ricardo was writing – wanted to obtain the best possible financial returns, then it made sense for them to invest in their local or national industries with the greatest comparative advantage. But since Ricardo’s day, the entire drift of global financial policy has been to remove the trade barriers that pushed investors to seek comparative advantage, and also to virtualise the economy away from the production of physical things and towards the increase of money itself. So while an English capital-holder today may be better advised to invest in cloth than wine (Ricardo’s original examples) if they want a high return on investment they’re almost certainly even better advised to invest in derivatives on Wall Street. This replacement of comparative advantage by absolute advantage fundamentally changes the economic game in ways that quaint Ricardian theories of international trade are powerless to model.

Meanwhile, national and local governments have numerous responsibilities. Trying to maximise fiscal flows and foreign exchange earnings are certainly among them, but there are many others – the health and wellbeing of the populace, the resilience of infrastructures (including soil health and food security) and so on. Global policymakers nowadays seem to be gripped by a huge Hayekian delusion that all of these things are best secured by hawking them on global commodity markets. Even so, most wealthy countries take steps to protect their agricultures and ensure that their farmland remains productively farmed. You can certainly criticise the way they go about it – as in the EU’s common agricultural policy – on numerous grounds, but the basic motivation behind it seems sound. It’s unusual, and I think ill-advised, for a country to cast out its agriculture as Health and Harmony does in favour of the religious mantra that ‘the market will provide’.

Eighteen months ago I was pilloried on here by a couple of commenters for supporting continued British membership of the EU on the grounds that the latter is committed to neoliberalism. But it seemed obvious then, and it seems even more obvious now, that aside from a few misty-eyed nationalists the main impetus for Brexit within the Conservative Party came from people dissatisfied with the EU because it wasn’t neoliberal enough. The Health and Harmony paper seems confirmatory of this point. A case could have been made for a ‘progressive’ Brexit, but it would be stretching a point to say that that case has even been a marginal part of Brexit politics. In this sense, though I don’t like to use the term, people who supported Brexit for its progressive possibilities strike me as essentially useful idiots for neoliberalism. Though it’s possible, if fortune smiles on them, that they may yet have the last laugh.

In the short term, though, Britain is putting itself at a comparative disadvantage in pursuit of ‘competitiveness’ in the global agrarian economy. It’s worth bearing in mind that agriculture currently contributes less than 1% of Britain’s gross value added economic output, and under any realistic medium-term economic scenario it’s hard to see that increasing in any major way. But Britain could more or less feed itself from its existing agriculture if the government chose to make that a priority. To me, that seems a much wiser option than trying to wring another few million quid from a more ‘competitive’ agriculture.

Meanwhile, another aspect of Ricardo’s economics is looming ever larger. Ricardo supported international free trade because he perceived that in a protected capitalist market landowners would be able to extract economic rent – an excess return over production costs – as a result of increasing food demand. Essentially, he construed a scenario in which labourers did honest work to earn their wage and capitalists did honest work to earn their profit, while landlords pocketed an increasing share of the economic surplus thus generated without lifting a finger.

This dynamic of Ricardian rent has largely been in abeyance for many years in the rich countries. Food prices have been low and rural landownership has rarely been a royal road to wealth. But as industry and economic growth stalls and inequalities widen, the prospect of the economy falling into the grip of landlordism grows. If we extend the logic beyond agricultural land per se, it’s already happened. It’s already happened from a poor country perspective in terms of the extraction of Ricardian rent by rich countries in controlling access to the global economy (this is one reason to welcome exit from the protectionism of EU agricultural policy – but Britain unilaterally falling on its sword in this way probably won’t benefit poor people globally a great deal). And it’s already happened from a rich country perspective in the substantial exit of businesses from matters of production in favour of battling to control the means of circulation – intellectual property rights, branding and so forth. The emergence of a rentier capitalism which has no interest in putting capital to work in service of material improvement (always a minor theme at best in earlier capitalist iterations in any case) has a thoroughly Ricardian resonance.

The way I see this panning out is a period of tricky trade wheeler-dealing that won’t be more economically beneficial to Britain than EU membership was, but may inaugurate a brief honeymoon of cheap, low-quality imported food and possibly improved wildlife habitats at home (we’ll conveniently ignore the consequences for ghost acres abroad). Then as climate change begins to bite in the global breadbasket countries and calculated self-interest looms larger in the global political economy, I think we’ll be in for a major food crisis where it’ll suddenly seem like a good idea for the government to be supporting the local production of food, and where large landowners in possession of lightly-farmed estates may start to feel some class-aligned political heat.

At that point, the government will start casting desperately around for solutions to the self-inflicted problem of its Ricardian nightmare. Luckily, Small Farm Future will be here for it, shining a guiding light that will help it overcome the Ricardian perils of our age with this simple two point plan:

  1. A new protectionist economics, focused around local production for local use. This protectionism won’t be of the tit-for-tat, ‘my country first’ kind being reinvigorated by idiotic politicians like Donald Trump. It will take the form of an internationally agreed, convivial kind of protectionism in which collective strength is gained from individual difference.
  2. A new anti-landlordism economics. But not in the traditional socialist or capitalist manner of alienating people from the fruits of their own work on the land, because the benefits of this ‘globalising’ move will no longer be paying out. In this situation, the most obvious form of anti-landlordism is of the if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em variety, in which more or less everyone becomes their own landlord.

The result of this protectionist, anti-landlord economics would look a lot like the small farm future I’ve long promulgated on this blog. What a funny coincidence. Undoubtedly, figuring out how to deliver this future from the unpromising present is a major conundrum. Happily, here at Small Farm Future we have all the answers – and we’ll start revealing them soon. But not just yet. First I have to go and pinch out my tomatoes.

An Oxford education

Perhaps I should essay a brief report here on things I heard and learned at the 2018 Oxford Real Farming Conference that I attended a couple of weeks back. If I try to lay it all out in connected prose I’ll probably come grinding to a halt after about 5,000 words, so I thought I’d present it mostly in the form either of little news snippets or of one-sentence assertions…the latter being things I heard people say, or thoughts I had while listening at the conference. So I don’t necessarily agree with all of these assertions, some of which are mutually contradictory anyway. But that’s fine. Most of the time, I don’t even agree with myself. Anyway, here goes.

oOo

The biggest name at the conference was secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs (and arch-Brexiteer), Michael Gove. Quite a coup for the ORFC to get him not only to attend, but to agree to an unscripted Q&A session.

The audience listened in increasingly open-mouthed astonishment as Gove critiqued the inequities in the subsidy system that rewarded wealthy landowners, bemoaned the poor state of agricultural soils under the existing agricultural regimen, restated his opposition to neonic insecticides, critiqued the economic externalities involved in cheap food and emphasised the importance of supporting farmers for delivering environmental benefits.

There are numerous reasons to be sceptical about Gove’s agenda. Undoubtedly, the Tories are trying to re-position themselves as environmental champions again, probably because they’re aware that hardly anyone under the age of about 45 voted for them at the last election (remember David Cameron’s hug-a-husky moment, before he switched to ‘green crap’). And Gove is probably trying to resurrect his career after the long knives of the Brexit campaign.

Still, maybe it’s still better to have a DEFRA secretary at least saying these kind of things than, as before, saying the opposite and/or steering well clear.

Unlike Owen Patterson, Gove doesn’t hail from the landed wealth wing of the Tory party. As a famous doubter of expert opinion and trasher of professional lobbying, DEFRA – much more than the Department of Education – could be just the place where his talents can be put to best use.

The debate in the Tory party at the moment resembles the 19th century debate over the Corn Laws between landed capital, manufacturing capital and financial capital.

The carpets of Conservative Party HQ are seamed with blood.

Gove was equivocal on glyphosate. Expect chemical no-till farming to become the new green.

Everybody now seems to accept that the writing’s on the wall for large-scale landowners pocketing public money via farm subsidies – even the Country Landowners Association (sorry, now the Country Landowners and Business Association) who were in attendance. One positive outcome of Brexit, I think, that I predicted some time ago…

…but while this change will probably have some marginally beneficial consequences for social equity in the country at large, the money is unlikely to be redeployed in farming, but removed from it entirely. So probably tough times ahead for the already struggling medium-scale farm. Example: there are plenty of holdings that keep 2 breeding sows and plenty that keep 2,000. There are very few that keep 200. Is this a problem? I think so.

Farmers have four options: Get big, get niche, get out or get bankrupt.

Gove said there’d be support for upland stock farmers. Good news for James Rebanks. Bad news for George Monbiot. Relevant reading: another brilliant article from the pen of Simon Fairlie, ‘Return of the shepherd’ The Land, Issue 22.

The basic payments scheme inflates land prices (DEFRA).

No it doesn’t (CLA)

When Britain quits the EU, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principles written into EU law won’t be transferred to British law.

When Britain quits the EU, there will be a regulatory gap, both in terms of legislation and regulatory staff.

Brexit is a great opportunity for Britain to set more appropriate local standards for food and farming.

Any post-EU trade deals Britain makes after a hard Brexit will potentially shatter local standards for food and farming, particularly a trade deal with the USA.

But any post-EU trade deals will have to be ratified by parliament, so if our elected representatives don’t like them they can throw them out.

If only it was as simple as that.

US farm animals are dosed with twice as much antibiotics as British ones.

Economic protectionism is a good idea, but only within a wider consociation of essentially amicable states. Otherwise the risk is the kind of trade-war bellicosity of the 1930s, potentially lurching into actual war. But presently there’s no global mechanism to achieve local protectionism and global consociation.

A system of cheap food depends on a system of cheap labour.

Britain currently imports a large part of its agricultural workforce from Eastern Europe, partly because of economic demand for labour from the weaker east European economies, but also because East European workers come with a range of agricultural skills that are in short supply in Britain, mostly through the running down of a proper framework for agricultural education.

In the context of Brexit, the supply of East European workers is dwindling.

Agricultural colleges are concentrating on graduate education, turning out students who want to be farm managers, rather than farm workers.

Allotment gardens available for student use at one agricultural college were derelict.

When faced with a 50-50 choice between investing in labour or investing in machinery, farm managers usually opt for machinery.

Machinery is generally high cost and large scale (= labour saving). The result is that the farm landscape is fitted to the machinery, rather than fitting the machinery to the farm landscape.

Much of the time, machinery sits in the shed. It can do the job it’s designed to do much more quickly and cheaply than human labourers. But without human labourers, much additional environmental work that could be done on the farm – hedging, ditching, woodland management etc. – doesn’t get done.

Nobody wants to work on farms any more.

Lots of people want to work on farms, but the opportunities are limited.

Working on farms is now a lonely occupation – and more dangerous, because of the human lack.

We need to grow more vegetables in the UK.

The UK government’s recent agricultural policy emphasised the need to ‘Grow more, sell more and export more’. Actually we should be trying to grow better, sell better and eat better.

New entrants to farming somehow need access to land. Or do they?

Dispersed grazing provides opportunities for new entrants.

Secure agricultural tenancy rights would take the heat out of the battle to secure access to land.

But there would be a hot battle to gain secure agricultural tenancy rights.

There is a long-term battle being fought between proponents of food democracy and food control. An Uberisation of the food system is occurring, in which the controllers of the software capture the majority of the value.

The food system is dependent on self-exploitation by its workers. It’s not a good system.

Something like 75% of the value in the food sector is captured beyond the farm gate.

Government benefits for the low waged working in the food processing and retail sector are an implicit subsidy to the process/retail industry.

We need shorter food chains.

France does a better job than the UK of controlling land concentration and retaining small-scale agriculture. But is it at the expense of accepting a patriarchal gerontocracy?

The number of farm holdings in the UK is reducing at a rate of about 2% per annum.

There is a precipitous decline in biodiversity and wild species numbers in Europe – and it’s largely due to farming practices.

The focus of the land value tax debate has been on property uplift, not on agricultural land as an enduring public good.

We tend to think of tax as a source of government revenue or for incentivising behaviours. We should also think of it as a means for preventing patrimonial, anti-democratic wealth accumulation.

Landowners capture the majority of the uplift value associated with turning land over to residential property development.

No they don’t.

Yes they do.

Traditional landed estates should be preserved because they’re a good way of handing down agricultural land through the generations.

No they’re not.

It took a war to reform Britain’s antiquated systems of property ownership and social security.

Brexit is like a war. But hopefully with fewer casualties.

Yes, hopefully.

Somebody at the conference I’d not met before had read my paper on perennial grains. They even agreed with it, and felt the Land Institute’s response missed the point. Validation! By Jove, it was all worthwhile…

A spade is a spade is a spade, but a perennial is not a perennial is not a perennial. Seeds are seeds. Fruits are fruits.

No they’re not.

Yes they are.

Etc.

Complicating the commons

A happy new year to you from Small Farm Future. So many things to write about in 2018…especially after getting back from the ninth Oxford Real Farming Conference, the biggest and best yet. The main theme I want to examine this year is the political shape of the state, specifically the agrarian states that I hope in the future may hold some promise for getting us out of the mess we’re currently in. On that note, my article on what I call the ‘supersedure state’ has just been published in the latest issue of The Land Magazine1. I’ll be republishing it on this site soon. At the end of this post, I’ll lay out a brief menu of things I’m going to be writing about here at SFF in the first part of the year, but first I want to anticipate my theme of the agrarian state by offering some further reflections on the concept of ‘the commons’ – which I’ve written about before, but feel moved to address further in the light of some of the presentations I heard at the Oxford conference, and of the interesting interview with George Monbiot in The Land.

Politically and intellectually, it seems like the idea of the commons is gaining traction – probably because the state and the market, its major rivals, have acquired something of an image problem in recent times. Politically, ‘the state’ has become associated with the unresponsive, centrally planned economies of communist regimes, and ‘the market’ with the flagrant inequalities and value-scouring short-termism of contemporary capitalism and/or neoliberalism. Intellectually, the story that’s often told about the commons starts with Garret Hardin’s notorious ‘tragedy of the commons’ argument that resources are over-used to the point of exhaustion in a commons because nobody has an individual interest in preserving them, and proceeds by way of Elinor Ostrom’s counter-analyses demonstrating various successful resource-preserving commons arrangements – some arising spontaneously through community-level agreements – to argue that the commons, rather than the state or the market, is the way forward2.

There’s much to commend these views, but they also involve some over-simplifications. The one that I particularly want to highlight here is our tendency to assume that markets and capitalism are complementary, if not synonymous. But they’re not. Historically, there’ve been plenty of market societies that weren’t capitalist, and plenty of capitalist societies (including our present one) which are not conspicuously market-friendly.

A capitalist society is one that secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of competitive profit maximization3, and only in certain rather unusual circumstances does that manifest in the development of widespread ‘free’, private markets of the kind identified in economic theory. As various thinkers have shown, markets are about exchanging goods through the medium of money, whereas capitalism is about using money to create more money, and one of the main ways capitalists do so is by using political patronage to help them create monopolies that limit market freedom. This is pretty much the situation we’re in today with the food system, and indeed in most other parts of the economy – as the economist Herbert Simon put it, we live in an organizational economy in which most economic transactions occur within corporate or government organisations, not in a market economy where they occur primarily in markets4. If we truly lived in a market economy, there would probably be something like 2 million farms in Britain, rather than the present 200,000.

Now, an attentive reading of Elinor Ostrom’s book suggests not that commons are a widespread and successful way of organising economic production, but on the contrary they’re rare and fraught with difficulty. To cut a long story short, in agricultural settings they usually only work at relatively small scales among groups of people who are relatively poor and who have relatively equal social standing, exploiting relatively extensive resources that are relatively low in value such as woodlands or grazing. People didn’t generally organise pre-capitalist agrarian societies predominantly through commons in the Hardin/Ostrom sense because it would have been a nightmare to do so, and the same is true a fortiori in contemporary society as we search for an alternative, post-capitalist economics. There are those who extend the concept of commons nowadays beyond agriculture into other realms, such as the notion of the ‘digital commons’. I’m not sure how convincing the parallel is, but if indeed there are commons in the digital world they don’t seem a whole lot more influential within it than traditional commons are within agriculture.

This would be a dispiriting conclusion if it propelled us back towards the dualities of state/market or communism/capitalism. But since, as I argued above, there’s nothing intrinsically capitalist about private markets, it doesn’t have to. My argument is that we should develop much more extensive private markets in food. If that happened, we’d find that the landscape would fill with lots of small-scale proprietors, who’d develop commoning arrangements between themselves as appropriate. And if they were supported by the state, this would really help to keep capitalism at bay.

A lot of the people who enthuse the most about commons are the kind of people who are themselves small proprietors, or aspire to be. I think they sometimes see their private ownership of land as a necessary evil in a capitalist society, whereas I’d suggest that it’s a desideratum for a non-capitalist society. Let’s have a look at these lyrics from Dick Gaughan’s song, The World Turned Upside Down, which expresses classic commoning sentiments:

This earth divided
We will make whole
So it will be a common treasury for all

The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain

For me, the key phrase here is “sell the earth for private gain”, and I take ‘gain’ to mean ‘unfair advantage’ – what economists call ‘rent’ in the technical sense of a situation in which monopoly control of a scarce, in-demand good enables the controller to name their price, however extortionate. But that isn’t necessarily the situation that obtains if I buy a plot of land and grow food crops on it which I sell at a local market. In that case, ‘property’ just means I’ve bought the right to an income stream from the land that will hopefully enable me to cover my ordinary living costs, just as a plumber does by charging out the costs of their time, tools and skills. Nor does the fact that I ‘own’ the land necessarily mean that I have an unchallenged right to do what I like on it or with it – the wider polity that has accorded me the right to derive income from it might, if it so chooses, forbid me from engaging in any number of damaging activities on it or from passing it on to my children if in so doing that would confer ‘private gain’ or rent. It can persuasively be argued that, in the UK, the state doesn’t intervene nearly enough in the ability of private property owners to extract economic rent, resulting in extravagantly high land prices. But that isn’t intrinsically an argument against private property as such.

Consider the alternative of a propertyless world in which the land indeed is a ‘common treasury’. Perhaps I’d like to use the land in my environs to produce clean water and energy and to grow some food for myself. Perhaps you’d like to build a road through it, making it easier for you to commute to a bigger town where you earn your salary as a commodity broker. Imagine if every single land or resource use decision had to be thrashed out individually within your ‘community’. Having spent more of my life than I care to recall in community meetings trying to agree on – well, just about anything – I do wonder if people who call for commons as a general way of organising everyday life have ever actually tried it. It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s witticism about socialism: the trouble is, it takes up too many evenings.

In his recent writings, George Monbiot argues for a land value tax, with the revenue thus gained being divided, after paying for public services, between communities which then set up democratic structures to manage its dispersal5. I agree that this is a good idea, subject to the nature of the democratic structures and the difficulties of forging a meaningful consensus at the level of the ‘community’. George gives various examples of how private property can deliver community benefits, especially when the planning process is participatory. I think he’s right, but for me it’s a stretch to call this a ‘commons’ – really, we’re talking about local determination of fiscal residues from the revenues of a larger centralised state, which has already top-sliced money for public goods, and mostly about collective private benefit from private ownership. I’d prefer to think of it as a reinvigorated public sphere within a society of private property right-holders. It’s something I’d endorse, particularly if the ‘public’ we’re talking about is one that’s substantially oriented to self-sustenance on the basis of local land and natural resources, with strong oversight from a centralised state at higher and lower geopolitical levels to defend public interest over private property rights, and also private interest over public appropriation. But I don’t think it helps to call it a commons or to suppose that it’s something radically different from an economy grounded in the state or the market. Because if you do, you tend to obscure or even scorn what you most need to develop – widespread private property rights, strong local markets, and a centralised state oriented to public wellbeing by regulating both.

One other thought on this. If you develop such a social order, you’ll get a lot of small local businesses and not so many large corporations. Is that what you’d want? A century ago, there were more firms manufacturing cars in France alone than there are in the whole world today. Today, there are only two manufacturers of large airliners in the world, and two major computer operating systems (OK, three, maybe four). Some might talk about economies of scale, though I’m not convinced that this is the only reason these huge monopolies have emerged. But there are also diseconomies of scale in the way that humanity shapes the world to fit its mega-monopolistic ways . Much of the technology that we take for granted today (but maybe don’t need) might not survive in a true state-market political economy of the kind I’m describing, rather than in our present organisational political economy. Perhaps that’s no bad thing?

oOo

Anyway, how to conjure such a state-market political economy out of our present mess is the main thing I want to focus on in my upcoming writing. Not that I necessarily have any brilliant ideas for snapping my fingers and making it happen. But there are a few lines of enquiry I want to pursue. Some of them take me back to the debates I was having here at Small Farm Future about this time last year in the thick of the Brexit-Trump imbroglio. I think it’s about time I – cautiously – picked up a few of those threads again. Cautiously, but maybe also quickly – I’ve already prepared a retrospective on Mr Trump a year on and I fear that it may be rendered obsolete either by the 25th amendment or the global consequences of his argument with Mr Kim Jong Un about the size of their, er, buttons. But let me at least try to cultivate an aura of calm. All in good time. So what I’m planning to offer readers in the first part of this year in addition to ruminations on the agrarian state is posts on the size of my garden, the number of cow legs I can reasonably manage, some juggling with an olive branch, a bracing dip into the deep waters of anthropological theory and Mesopotamian history, some brief trips to India, Cuba, Oxford and Alt-America, a wrecker’s guide to system theory, that perennial favourite of this site – energy futures and societal collapse – and a few tips on fencing, though possibly not of the kind you’d imagine in a blog ostensibly devoted to farming. At the same time, I’m trying to focus on a larger-scale writing project, so it’s possible my posts will be less frequent than they have been recently. But I hope you might stop by here and have a read or – still better – leave a comment…though please note that if you’d like me to reply it’s best to leave your comment at Small Farm Future and not at the various other waystations of cyberspace to which my posts sometimes migrate. À bientôt.

Notes

  1. C. Smaje. 2018. The human hive. The Land 22: 28-30.
  2. G. Hardin. 1977. ‘The tragedy of the commons’ in G. Hardin & J. Badel (eds) Managing the Commons, W.H. Freeman; E. Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons, Cambridge UP.
  3. See more detailed discussion here
  4. H. Simon. 1991. Organizations and markets. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 5, 2: 25-44.
  5. eg. 2018. ‘Reclaiming the commons’ The Land 22, 12-15.

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

About a year ago I started publishing on this site various projections for how the future population of southwest England where I live might be able to feed itself substantially on the basis of small-scale, relatively self-reliant ‘peasant’ farming – convincing myself, if no one else, in the process that such a ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ might be feasible. The notion that a small farm future of this sort may occur and may even be desirable and worth striving for is, I confess, hardly a mainstream political position. And yet it’s one that I’ve come to, for reasons that I’ve documented here over the years. Essentially, I think that humanity faces a series of interlocking ecological, economic, political, cultural and social crises that, if they’re resolvable at all, are most resolvable through a turn to small-scale, predominantly self-reliant farming. Actually, I see this way of life less as a ‘solution’ to modern ‘problems’ as a non-modern way of being that’s intrinsically less problematic. But I’m anxious to avoid easy dualities – not everything about modernity is necessarily bad, and not everything in a turn to small farm agrarianism would necessarily be good. I’ll say more about that in due course.

The main difficulties in achieving a turn to small-scale agrarianism are not agricultural, but social and political. So I now want to turn my attention away from issues of farm scale and structure towards these socio-political issues. As I started thinking about them, I found myself constantly drawn to history and to what the past may be able to teach us about the possible course of a small farm future. I’m still not really sure whether it does have much to teach us. I said above that a small farm future would be non-modern, but that’s not the same as pre-modern: a non-modern small farm future needn’t necessarily much resemble a pre-modern small farm past. Nevertheless, since the past is the main guide we have to the future, it seems like a good place to start. Originally I planned to write a blog post that was to be sardonically entitled ‘The history of the world in 10½ paragraphs’ (with apologies to Julian Barnes) in which I was going to lay out a few broad historical themes before moving on to examining the socio-political shape of my future Peasant’s Republic. But the task kept growing – there has, after all, been quite a lot of history. Almost before I knew it, it had turned into ‘The history of the world in 10½ blog posts’ – still, of course, without going much further than laying out a few broad themes. So this is what I’m now publishing. The entire c.27,000 word essay is now available from the Publications page of my website, but I’m also going to publish it in hopefully more digestible week-by-week blog-post size instalments over the next couple of months.

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It’s probably worth devoting just a few sentences to explaining what this exercise is about and what it isn’t. It’s surely obvious that nobody can really write a ‘history of the world’, however many words or years they devote to it. So I haven’t even tried. What I have tried to do is lay out the main patterns and structures of the past as I see them that I think we have to reckon with today if we’re to wrest a comfortable and sustainable future (which I think will have to be largely a small farm future) from the troubled present. This involves tracing political and economic relationships over large parts of the globe, which partly justifies my title. But I’ve made no attempt to trace human history even-handedly across all times and places. I’m open to comments and criticisms of things I’ve omitted, but if they’re of the form ‘your analysis is wholly lacking in an account of the struggle for self-determination in Mozambique’ my response will be a rather uninterested ‘yep, you got me there’. Challenges to my rendering of the larger structures I discuss will gain more of my interest.

My focus here is mostly on the way that local societies, local farms, local human ecologies, get incorporated into bigger political and economic structures – and conversely how they de-incorporate or resist that process. In general I think de-incorporation is a good idea, and is probably going to happen anyway whether it’s a good idea or not. But I don’t think any kind of de-incorporation or local autarky is necessarily desirable, nor do I think large political structures are necessarily undesirable. For me, the relationship between the state and local human ecologies is problematic precisely because it admits to no easy answers. On reflection, I fear that I haven’t justified here as clearly as I should have done why small-scale or ‘peasant’ farming is so important, but perhaps it’ll be easier to do that in another post in the light of the historical analysis provided here.

Another thing I say little about here, even though it’s the overarching context for the whole essay, is the set of ‘environmental’ problems humanity currently faces in relation to ecological degradation, climate change, energy futures and so on (I’ve written about them fairly extensively elsewhere on this website). This is essentially because I don’t think issues of energy and environment have generally been the fundamental movers of human history in the past (which is not to say they haven’t been important). I suspect they may be prime movers of human history in the future, and one of the problems humanity now faces is learning to acknowledge this novel fact. Joe Clarkson drew my attention to Fred Cottrell’s interesting book Energy and Society, which I might have incorporated more fully here if I’d come across it earlier. Energy capture certainly provides one worthwhile frame on which to hang an account of human history. So perhaps does crop development. These aren’t the frames I’ve chosen here, but that’s not to say that they (along with other aspects of ecological constraint) aren’t crucial factors now facing us. The truth is quite the opposite.

As I wrote the essay, I tried to keep in mind the hope that people other than me might read it, but as per my last post in many ways it’s a rather personal odyssey through my intellectual history, and also a kind of aide memoire for issues I’d like to come back to in the future, so the essay involves a certain amount of personal wrestling with historical issues where I feel the need to work out a position. Which is another way of asking forgiveness for what I fear may seem like various weird digressions in the text. I’ve fretted over this essay, perhaps a little too much, and probably re-edited, cut and pasted it too many times for its own good, so if there are any parts of it that make you think ‘Oh for goodness sake, cut this out and just get on with it’, I’d be interested to hear. If, on the other hand, you feel that way about the entire essay, then there’s no need to contact me – but sorry for wasting your time. For the time-pressed, let me broadcast upfront the main issues I’ve extracted from my historical analysis which I think we need to juggle with in figuring out a just and sustainable small farm future:

  • 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.

If you require any further justification for those points…well, you’ll just have to read my next 10½ blog posts…

In relation to notes and referencing, at the risk of demonstrating my utter unoriginality I decided to reference the essay fairly comprehensively so that I can use it easily as a resource for future writing. I’m publishing the entire essay along with notes and bibliography on the Publications page of the website, and then chopping it up into weekly blog posts with footnotes (but not references) at the end of each post. If you want to chase up a reference, you’ll find it in the bibliography at the end of the full essay on the publications page.

I hope the essay might find some interested readers. I’ve certainly found it interesting to write. The key historical figures in it, ones who lurk forever at the interface between the local human ecologies and larger political-economic structures discussed here, are peasantries – endlessly pitied, exploited, romanticised, derided, expropriated or written off, but unquestionably still here. The essay is dedicated, in more ways than one, to them – though not, I hope, uncritically.

Right, let’s get started…

1. Origins

In the beginning, there was a Miocene ape – the common ancestor of our genus Homo and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas.

…well, that’s probably enough for one blog post. We’ll pick up the thread again next week. But if you can’t wait that long to find out what happens next, you know where to look.

The tyranny of the ‘collaborative commons’

Busy times for me on and off the farm at the moment, but it feels like it’s time for another post. I’ll soon be returning to the Peasants Republic of Wessex by way of recounting the history of the world, but I’m not quite ready for that yet. Meanwhile, I seem to be in the business of knocking out little critical vignettes on various writers, having offered up Peter Frase and Michael Le Page in my last two posts. Two more to come, I think, before turning to other matters – on this occasion Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist1. I’m currently writing a full-scale review of the book to appear elsewhere. Here, I’m going to focus in specifically on the issue of ‘commons’ that Raworth raises in various parts of her book. I’ve written about it several times before on this blog, since I find myself much less enthusiastic about commons than most of my greenish-leftish-progressive-anti-capitalist fellow travellers. Ach, I’m a peasant populist at heart, and peasants have a canny sense of when a commons is a good idea and when it isn’t. Anyway, I’m not going to summarise exactly what Raworth says about commons, I’m just going to offer you the following six postulates about them prompted by my reading of her book.

  1. All forms of production are ‘collective’ – but that doesn’t make them a commons.

There are four main ways through which people organise their provisioning – households, private markets, governments and commons. Each have characteristic strengths and weaknesses, and are likely to be more or less appropriate in different situations. In order to succeed, all four of them rely upon collective arrangements between people to organise provisioning. A strong case can be made that the contemporary global economy is excessively focused on private markets to the detriment of collective human flourishing. But that’s not at all the same thing as arguing that provisioning should be organised in the form of commons.

  1. It’s easy to overstate the extent to which both the natural world and human history can be characterized as commons. And it’s unnecessary.

All organisms live interactively with others upon which they depend as part of wider communities. But in the natural world, their actions are rarely motivated by a concern for the wellbeing of the community and its resource bases as a whole – there are rarely agreed collective appropriation rules in nature. There frequently are collective appropriation rules in human societies, and often enough there are conflicts over them. It would be fair to say that in various times and places over the course of human history collective appropriation rights have sometimes been extinguished, to the detriment of some of the people involved and to the advantage of others. But I don’t think it would be fair to say that the history of most places, such as England, can be told substantially in terms of an ‘enclosure of the commons’ in which private appropriation by the aristocracy replaced collective appropriation by the populace. Additionally, there are various contemporary conflicts around the use of seeds, organisms and genes, and a strong case can be made in these instances that the privatisation of usage rights is a bad idea. It may even make sense to call this privatisation an ‘enclosure of the commons’. But the rights and wrongs of these conflicts are best framed in their own contemporary terms, rather than seeing them as analogous to medieval conflicts over agricultural land use or the way that organisms behave in ecosystems – except in such a broad and general sense as to be more or less meaningless.

  1. Agricultural commons work best for relatively low value, extensive, non-excludable situations with high labour costs of capital improvement, and the same is probably true of other commons.

The original meaning of a ‘common’ was an agricultural resource shared by a specific community in accordance with defined usage rules – and they typically arose in the kinds of situation described in the previous sentence. If you wanted to grow some onions for your table, it’s unlikely that you’d form a commons for the purpose – unless you had a taste for wasting a lot of your time trying to forge agreements in frustrating public meetings. Whereas if you wanted to collect firewood from your local woods, you might well feel it was worth the effort to work with others to create a commons so as to be sure there’d be some more firewood next year. Nowadays when we talk of commons we usually mean something more virtual – Raworth’s text is sprinkled with references to things like ‘the knowledge commons’, ‘the collaborative commons’ and ‘the creative commons’. An oft-cited example of such things is open source computer software. I can see how this particular example might fit with the typical characteristics of an agricultural commons within a community of software developers whose main livelihood is already secured (probably on the basis of paying a pittance for the food they eat) and who find more benefit from freely sharing bits of code they’re working on around their community than from trying to develop it on their own and then charging for it. But it’s a slippery slope, and once we start using terms like ‘the collaborative commons’ as a grander-sounding way to say ‘people sharing things’, the concept of the commons starts to lose useful meaning. It’s a given that people sometimes share things and sometimes don’t. We need to attend carefully to the circumstances in which they do or don’t, or in which they should or shouldn’t. Arguments with the logic of commons = sharing = good just aren’t careful enough.

  1. Production and circulation are different things.

I think the slippage I’ve just referred to from commons qua ‘defined collective usage agreement’ to commons qua ‘free stuff, freely shared’ matters quite a lot. To explain why I first need to introduce a distinction between production and circulation, which I’ll do via a quotation from Raworth:

“The triumph of the commons is certainly evident in the digital commons, which are fast turning into one of the most dynamic arenas of the global economy. It is a transformation made possible, argues the economic analyst Jeremy Rifkin, by the ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing, creating what he has called ‘the collaborative commons’….Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place, the cost of producing one extra joule of energy, one extra download, one extra 3D printed component, is close to nothing, leading Rifkin to dub it ‘the zero-marginal-cost revolution’. The result is that a growing range of products and services can be produced abundantly, nearly for free, unleashing potential such as open-source design, free online education, and distributed manufacturing”2

The confusion as I see it here is that, yes, the marginal costs of circulation are now nearly zero, but the actual costs of production aren’t necessarily much different from pre-internet or even pre-book times. It takes as much hard thought and hard work to put together a good course, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design as it ever did. But once it’s put together, it can now be distributed almost costlessly around the world, potentially to an audience of billions. The zero-marginal-cost-revolution, if there is one, is a revolution of circulation, not production.

  1. Poorly-framed concepts of the commons punish creativity.

Well, no doubt this revolution is a fine thing. But follow the money. Those who control the circulation are in a position to effortlessly siphon off wealth, whereas those who control the production aren’t – which is why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are a lot richer than any political essayist, poet or tractor designer. I don’t especially have a problem with that, except inasmuch as their private wealth derives from the ‘enclosure’ of appropriation rights from publicly-generated means of circulation. Which is surely an irony – a ‘collaborative commons’ based on privately owned, and possibly ‘enclosed’, means of circulation. But what I do have a problem with is the belittling of creativity or content-creation implicit in this whole ‘collaborative commons’ mindset. The way I see it, almost everybody has some kind of creativity – with words, or music, or materials, or ideas. The private market we use so pervasively to organise our lives is over-supplied with this torrent of human creativity, meaning it’s darned difficult to turn a buck from it. Fine, nobody was born deserving a favour from the world. But to my mind all this talk of ‘collaborative commons’ or ‘knowledge commons’ or Stewart Brand’s much quoted shibboleth that ‘ideas want to be free’ basically mystifies the hard work of production and gives the appropriation of circulation an easy ride. I wrote about this previously in relation to the debate between Josef Davies-Coates and Toby Hemenway concerning the former’s free circulation of the latter’s book, where the prevailing idea on the ‘knowledge commons’ side of the debate seemed to be that nobody really has any original ideas so they shouldn’t expect to make any money out of repackaging collective human wisdom.

OK, but we all have to eat – typically by either paying for someone to repackage collective human wisdom on the farm and grow food for us, or by doing it ourselves. And conversely we’re perfectly at liberty not to consume somebody else’s repackaged human wisdom on the “don’t use, don’t pay” principle, whether it comes in the form of poetry, political essays or a bag of corn chips. Those who want to push hard for a ‘collaborative commons’ with minimal rights of private creative appropriation need to explain how people would create their livelihoods in such a society. To be fair, Raworth does have the makings of an answer on this front, even if it’s the same one as most other writers in this leftish, technophile tradition – universal basic income. But she doesn’t really flesh out what that would end up looking like politically – less so, say, than Peter Frase, whose work I reviewed recently. My bet is that the most likely political endpoints for that would either be an economically insecure, moribund and dreary modernist authoritarianism (which we seem well on our way to achieving), or else a neo-peasant society in which we devote most of our creativity to providing our own food, clothes and shelter, with the occasional bonus of our music, stories, crafts or knowledge freely given to people we care about in our families and wider communities. I much prefer the latter outcome to the former, so if I have to nail my colours to the ‘collaborative commons’ mast I guess my rallying cry will be “Collaborative commons, universal basic income and two acres for all!” More on that anon.

  1. Commons aren’t always the best way of organising provision.

I can’t help feeling that a lot of the people who wax most lyrical about the benefits of the “collaborative commons” are probably salaried employees of large-scale public or private sector institutions who are less aware than they might be of exactly who is bearing the costs of the collaboration – or else perhaps a self-employed consultant able to charge out their time quite handsomely to the same. If so, a stint as a self-employed farmer providing basic food for themselves or selling it to a local community may prove eye-opening. I also can’t help feeling that a lot of the people who wax most lyrical about Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons as proving the superiority of the commons as a mode of provisioning probably haven’t actually read it. Fair play, it’s pretty dry stuff – I must admit that I skimmed over the odd page or two myself on the ins and outs of municipal water litigation in California. But Ostrom doesn’t argue that a commons – agricultural, digital, creative, knowledge, collaborative or whatever else – is necessarily the best way of organising things. Nor, I think, should anyone else.

oOo

Well, there you have it – a few top of the head thoughts I’ve skimmed off from the collective human genius, and repackaged right here. I’ll attempt to work it up into something a bit more rigorous in due course. Thanks for reading this far. I appreciate it. And now I better go and tend to my garden. Donate button is top right.

Notes

  1. Kate Raworth (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. London: Random House.
  1. Ibid. pp.83-4.

 

The Ecological Land Co-op

I’d been aiming to publish a bit of good news on this site for a change, just when I learned yesterday the very bad news of the Manchester bombing. I guess I can understand some of the logic of anti-modernist and anti-liberal movements – I’ve even been called a dangerous extremist myself once or twice for that reason. What I struggle to understand or empathise with is the emotional interior of anyone who kills people at random, and what they think it achieves. My thoughts are with those personally affected.

Well, maybe the best thing I can do is press on with the good news anyway…which is that, finally, forty odd years after Margaret Thatcher launched her revolution of small-time shareholding, for the first time in my life I’ve bought some shares. I hope the spirit of Margaret is smiling on me, though to be honest if I were to dedicate my purchase to an indomitable politician my pick would be Caroline Lucas. The shares, you see, are in the Ecological Land Co-op (ELC), which raises finance from investors in order to create affordable low-impact smallholdings – a congruent aim with my small farm future brief.

I think organisations like the ELC are a necessary step on the path to a small farm future here in Britain for reasons neatly captured by a pithy answer I read a year or two back to a question posted on the British Farming Forum about how to get into farming: “Be born into it, marry into it or make a stack of money and buy your way into it.” OK, so there are other options – go to agricultural college, become a farm manager, or if you’re lucky perhaps take on a tenancy. But in the UK landownership is the sine qua non of security, especially if you harbour fancy notions of farming ‘ecologically’. And agricultural land is pretty darned expensive – £10,000 per acre is about par. At an auction I attended recently, one 3.5 acre parcel went for £110,000. And this is bare land without a dwelling – you can probably multiply those values tenfold for a plot with planning permission for a dwelling, regardless of whether it has an actual farmhouse on it or not.

Ah, planning permission, planning permission. In rural England, we seem to talk of little else. Well, I’ve been down this road too many times on this blog before, but I’m going to try to explain very briefly how this works and where the ELC comes in. Since 1947, building in the so-called ‘open’ countryside has been rigorously restricted. I concede there’s some logic to it – scattering random houses around the countryside probably isn’t a great idea. So if you buy a plot of agricultural land and want to build a house on it, you have to persuade the powers that be that you have a good agricultural case for your proposed dwelling. Again, not such a bad idea – otherwise the fields would soon be paved over by people seeking nothing more than a house on the cheap.

The problem is, the powers that be are notoriously unpersuadable. The two main stumbling blocks usually revolve around proving that there’s an ‘essential need’ to live onsite and proving that the business will be financially viable. On the first point, let me give the example of my planning authority whose Local Plan states in paragraph 6.121 “In most cases, it will be as convenient and more sustainable for [farm] workers to be accommodated in existing accommodation in nearby towns and villages” – a wording shamelessly lifted from now defunct government guidelines and re-purposed to keep the riff-raff off the land until 2029. But, seriously, ‘as convenient and more sustainable’? Anyone who’s actually tried to run a farm while living somewhere else would likely respond, “no it bloody isn’t” but perhaps paragraph 6.121 suffices to indicate the journey in store for anyone seeking to persuade their local authority of their need to live on the land.

On the second point, the idea of running a business that’s financially viable probably doesn’t seem a demanding hurdle, except hardly anyone makes any appreciable money out of farming these days and the whole sector is pretty much propped up by a subsidy regimen courtesy of the EU (interesting times ahead…) But small-scale farmers aren’t eligible for subsidies and the costs of actually establishing a farm (even a homespun one like mine with its aging machinery and freecycled infrastructure) are prohibitive.

The result is that people who basically just want to run a viable farm can spend years and years wrangling with local planning authorities, and an awful lot of time and public money is wasted trying to prevent people from doing a little bit of good in their local communities.

This is where for me the ELC ticks a lot of boxes. By raising money from investors, it’s able to lease or sell leasehold smallholdings at more affordable prices, thus obviating the aforementioned need for the would-be farmer otherwise to choose the circumstances of their birth, enter a loveless marriage of convenience, or toil miserably to turn an income when they should be turning a furrow. It has paid staff who are able to take on the burden of attaining planning permissions – a task made easier by the accumulation of expertise within the organisation and by establishing a successful track record. And by acting as a watchful but benevolent landlord, it can take the sting out of the inevitable but usually misplaced mutterings among local residents and planning officers that a rural worker’s dwelling application is only a front by scammers in search of a cheap house.

The downsides – well, I suppose it’s not a very radical solution to the problem of rural land availability. The smallholdings the ELC can offer in view of all its other commitments aren’t that affordable, and a lot of the money raised from well-meaning investors like me goes into the pocket of the vendor. Though since I’m a sometime property vendor myself I can’t really complain – I can only assuage my guilt by buying ELC shares. Ultimately, it seems to me four changes are needed if we’re to create a sensible and sustainable turnover of agricultural land. First, a way of capturing its value socially – Malcolm Ramsay was discussing his interesting proposals along those lines on this site a few weeks back. Second, a modification of the planning system to make it supportive of rather than hostile towards people pursuing genuine small-scale agricultural projects (this wouldn’t require any legislative change – just a change of planning authority culture). And third a way of monitoring such projects to ensure their genuineness – though I’d make a proviso here that established ‘born in’ farmers should be subject to the same monitoring, so as not to discriminate against new entrants. These three suggestions, however, only involve the commercial farming sector – whereas what I’ve been driving at on this blog of late is the need to embrace low impact subsistence smallholdings. This could quite easily be achieved with a few tweaks to the self-build policies that councils now have in place and a bit more thought in Local Plan drafting. Though regrettably subsistence smallholding doesn’t loom large in any of the major parties’ political priorities just now, so I suspect the policies will remain untweaked.

Well, in the meantime at least the ELC is here raising the profile of these issues and painstakingly preparing fertile ground – both literally and figuratively – for a more sustainable agrarian future. The good news is the share offer is still open – so if you’ve got some spare cash to invest in a worthy cause, you can come join me in the (slow and peaceful) revolution.

One cheer for the commons

A recent article on Resilience.org proclaimed that ‘the commons is the future’, so let me state my thesis plainly at the outset: no it isn’t, and in the event that humanity manages to create sustainable societies and/or sustainable resource use in the future, common property regimes will likely only have a fairly minor role to play in them. I’m not going to dwell much on the Resilience article, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t, but the general position I’m staking seems to put me at odds with a lot of environmental and egalitarian-minded people whose views I otherwise largely share, so maybe it’s worth exploring further – as I do below under a number of headings for ease of argument.

What is a commons?

People often talk rather loosely about the ‘global commons’ or humanity’s ‘common treasury’ of soil, air, water, knowledge, seeds etc. Part of the problem in thinking about commons arises right here at the definitional outset, because these things aren’t actually commons. They’re what economists call public goods – that is, a good where consumption is non-rivalrous and non-excludable, like air – the breaths I take don’t impede the breaths you take, and it’s hard for us to limit anyone’s access to air in such a way that we can charge them for breathing (…don’t mention it to George Osborne though, just in case). A commons, by contrast, is a resource where people’s use of it does affect others’ use, and indeed is often at risk of destruction by overuse. To remedy this, a commons identifies a specific community of users (and thus, by implication, a wider community of non-users) and a set of usage protocols that specify how the resource is to be used. A classic example is the commons of pre-industrial England, where certain local people were entitled to graze a set amount of livestock on land they didn’t own, or glean corn from the fields after harvest, or take gorse as firewood. The tripartite commons definition operates in these cases – a resource, a specific community, a usage protocol.

Private – Public – Common

Commons certainly have their place in the scheme of things, but I’m not entirely sure why they seem to be flavour of the month in alternative economics circles. Most likely it’s because both private and state ownership of economic resources have had a poor track record in recent times, with callously rapacious capitalism and repressive, monolithic communism both standing indicted in the historical dock. Do the commons, neither purely private nor purely public, offer a fresh option?

Maybe. But let’s look closer. Yavor Tarinski, in the aforementioned ‘Commons is the future’ article, refers to the work of leading commons scholar, the late Elinor Ostrom, on the commons in the Swiss Alpine village of Törbel. Tarinski writes, “In the Swiss village in question, local farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow for herd grazing.”

Let’s look at what Ostrom says:

“For centuries, Törbel peasants have planted their privately owned plots with bread grains, garden vegetables, fruit trees and hay for winter fodder. Cheese produced by a small group of herdsmen, who tend village cattle pasture on the communally owned alpine meadows during the summer months, has been an important part of the local economy. Written legal documents dating back to 1224 provide information regarding…the rules used by the villagers to regulate the five types of communally owned property: the alpine grazing meadows, the forests, the “waste” lands, the irrigation systems, and the paths and roads connecting privately and communally owned property”1

In other words, the primary subsistence activities undertaken by the villagers, which take up the majority of their time, are private affairs. Only in the case of a few less intensive activities are things arranged communally – important activities, to be sure, but scarcely indicative of a thoroughly communalised mindset. To me, it seems strange to home in on Törbel’s commons as somehow exemplary of a commoning life distinct from private property relations, when so much of the village economy is clearly organised through the latter.

Undoubtedly there’s a need in contemporary politics to transcend some of the more problematic consequences of traditional economic systems, both private and state organised, and commons provide some interesting examples of self-organising collective institutions in this respect. But as Ostrom herself pointed out, institutions are seldom wholly private or public – “the market” or “the state” (indeed, markets require state manipulation to operate, and even the most totalitarian of regimes is incapable of eliminating private economic relations). Ostrom provides many examples of the ways that commons – whether pastures, fisheries, irrigation schemes or water catchment protection – draw strength from what she calls “rich mixtures of “private-like” and “public-like” institutions defying classification in a sterile dichotomy”2. So perhaps there’s a need to go beyond simplistic notions of markets or states being bad and commons being good, and to specify more richly what kind of private, public or common institutions can be effective in different circumstances. Ostrom’s work stands as an impressive rebuke to those who think that communities can never organise their own resource use effectively without the help of the state or the market, but she’s at pains to show that commons don’t always work and aren’t always an appropriate mode of organisation.

So when do they work? Summarising Ostrom’s intricate analysis very crudely, the answer seems to be when there’s a relatively small number of people of fairly equivalent social standing who have a long-term interest in using a resource, particularly when that resource has a low value per unit area, or is erratically productive, or is hard to intensify, or is hard to exclude people from. I’ll come back to this. But I hope that answer begins to hint at why commons may not always be the optimal strategy for a sustainable agriculture of the future.

Of selfishness and altruism

The fact that commons seem to involve an element of altruism is, I suspect, one reason for the contemporary enthusiasm over them as a reaction to the tired nostrum of orthodox economic theory concerning intrinsic human selfishness. So are people intrinsically selfish or intrinsically altruistic? Both, surely. A close look at successful commons invariably reveals elaborately constructed procedures to detect and disincentivize cheating and free riding, while a close look at historical court proceedings associated with functioning commons reveals numerous actual examples of such behaviour. Not necessarily very frequent examples – the mark of a good commons is strong arrangements to ensure that people stick by the rules – but numerous enough for all that. Most people surely display all manner of altruism in their daily lives, but commons based on the notion that everyone will play ball because of an intrinsic human altruism soon founder.

To develop that point further, I’d suggest it’s untrue that private property regimes inevitably instil selfishness or that public authority is inevitably unresponsive and monolithic, just as it’s untrue that commoners are intrinsically selfish or intrinsically altruistic (David Bollier’s interesting book Think Like A Commoner sometimes errs, I believe, in its tendency to assimilate private property to capitalism and thence to beggar-my-neighbour self-interest: private property relations are not necessarily capitalist relations). Again, we need richer descriptions of the ways in which specific forms of economic organisation function or malfunction in specific cultural contexts. Part of the problem, I think, is the ascendancy of a neoliberal fundamentalism in western politics over the last thirty years or so that insists every sphere of life must be marketised. Recoiling from this delusion, and bruised by the defeat of the alternatives offered by traditional leftism, progressive thinkers have cast around for alternatives and lit upon the commons. But, as outlined earlier, commons usually only work well in particular rather specialised situations – and indeed themselves depend on wider private and public institutions. It’s often better, I’d argue, to work at correcting the malfunctioning aspects of private or public sector institutions than to assume that a commons will solve the problem.

Poverty and the commons

Much has been written on the enclosure of the commons – paradigmatically, on the extinction of commoners’ rights in early modern England. The reality of it was more complicated than pro- or anti-enclosure propagandists will usually admit, but I’m broadly sympathetic to the position sketched by historian J. Neeson that the enclosure of the commons represented the destruction of a peasantry and its reconstitution as a proletariat3. Enclosure undoubtedly imposed hardship on the rural poor, and for that reason I mourn it. Most of my writing revolves around making the case for a contemporary peasant agriculture. I do not welcome the destruction of peasantries, historic or contemporary.

But let’s get a grip. The loss of harvest gleaning rights must have been a blow to many a poor rural family, but would you like to go on your hands and knees through a cornfield in search of your supper? Commons can be a good way of intensifying land use, making them more ecologically and economically efficient, and thereby helping redress poverty in situations of great economic inequality. But they don’t in themselves radically challenge that inequality. Indeed, in some ways perhaps they buttress it. In situations where the poor have little access to resources, commons arise which help them make best use of what’s available to them. But there are better ways of creating access to resources. Those ways change over time, too. When the cost of containing livestock was prohibitive, it made sense for people to band together and employ a cowherd to tend their beasts on the common pasture. Nowadays, it would probably cost more to employ a herdsman on the commons than to fence your own fields.

But nowadays few of us have our own beasts or fields. Instead we have ideas and creative output we want to disseminate. The modern commons is about information and information sharing – an ‘open source’, ‘digital commons’. The idea of open source is that the great stock of human knowledge is a commons that shouldn’t be enclosed. But it seems to have turned into the notion that stuff ought to be free, and that people shouldn’t expect recompense for the work they put into uploading more content into the collective human consciousness. In other words, when we talk about the modern digital commons, the community and the protocol part of the commons definition goes missing. We happily fill Microsoft or Apple’s coffers so we can gain access to the content of this ‘digital commons’, but we expect the creators of content to furnish it for free on the grounds that they’re just recyclers of the knowledge commons, forgetting that so too are Microsoft and Apple. As farmers down the ages will tell you, the middleman makes the money and the producer gets little or nothing. This is not a commons.

There’s a donate button top right on my blog, by the way.

Contemporary peasants, contemporary commons

But I digress. Let me conclude by getting back to land use and thence to agriculture. Here’s an example of a contemporary commons that can work very well: residents in an urban area successfully petition their hard-pressed municipal authority to cede a piece of wasteground to them on a preferential long-term lease, organising themselves to tidy it up and improve access so that it becomes a valued recreational haven in the hurly-burly of the city. It works, because the characteristics of a successful commons that I outlined above mostly apply – a community of interest, an extensive resource that’s hard to intensify or exclude people from etc.

But now suppose that the commoners decide to plant a community vegetable garden on the site. At first, the volunteer days are well attended and the garden gets off to a flying start. But growing vegetables is a lot of work, and most people’s interest soon flags. Volunteer attendance starts to drop off, and the hardy few who are now carrying the project begin to resent making produce available to those who aren’t pulling their weight. They try to come up with some protocols about inputs and rewards from the garden at a fractious meeting in which accusations of selfishness fly from all quarters. Some residents really would like to help, but they aren’t sure if they’ll have the time, or even whether they’ll still be living here come next growing season. And now there aren’t enough volunteers even to keep the beds properly weeded. Then a property development company appears on the scene with its eye on the gardens, which it thinks could make a good site for housing. They offer to buy the commoners handsomely out of their lease. Many of them are keen on this idea. The community gardeners are aghast.

I’ve seen this kind of thing play out many times. I could dwell on the ramifications at length, but instead let me offer a brief closing thesis. Before we can have meaningful contemporary agricultural commons we need to create a relatively egalitarian community of small farmers who are in it for the long haul and who are anxious to preserve the productive potential of their local environment for themselves and their descendants. Once such a community has arisen, it will likely find many creative ways of forming commons around the interstices of its activities which will increase the efficiency of local resource use. So in this sense, yes, commons can definitely be a part of the future, and probably a bigger part than they currently are. But – as in Törbel – the most important, most intensive activities are likely to be better served by a private property regime, so long as it’s a private property regime geared primarily to providing homes and productive agricultural land to farmers who have independent agency within publicly-agreed norms of acceptable behaviour, rather than a private property regime geared to the easy monetisation of assets (in other words, that it’s a peasant and not a capitalist private property regime – a compassionate and community-minded one, yes, but a communal one, probably not). Private property certainly isn’t the only possible way of organising a just and sustainable human ecology, but it’s one that’s familiar to us westerners. And it’ll be hard enough wresting a private property regime of petty proprietorship from the fiery hell of capitalist land values without further saddling ourselves with idealistic commoning arrangements as a means to earn our daily bread. Let us not run before we can walk.

Notes

  1. Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing The Commons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.61-2.
  1. Ibid. p.14.
  1. Neeson, J. 1993. Commoners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Worst trade union of the year award: a Small Farm Future special

The year, I know, is scarce begun, and yet already I feel able to offer you three strong contenders for this new annual award from the small farm future stable, culled from my recent trip to the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Now, trade unionism gets a bad press these days, and I have to admit that for all its associations with progressive leftism, the movement has mined a rich historic seam of small-minded conservatism and unenlightened self-interest. Still, you only have to look at what happens in the absence of trade unions to appreciate their importance – for example, in food journalist Felicity Lawrence’s sobering reports about the criminal exploitation of migrant labour in British agriculture. Or, talking of mining as I just was, an example from my own family history: my great grandfather, killed with sixty other men by a methane explosion in a Yorkshire pit during the pre-unionised days of the late 19th century. The mining company stopped his pay at the moment of his death. My grandmother said it was only the Salvation Army that kept her widowed mother from penury.

For all the demonization of the traditional working-class trade unions, it’s the white collar unions – the British Medical Associations and Law Societies of this world – who really put the ‘con’ into trade union conservatism. But perhaps the recent, narrowly-averted strike by junior doctors signals another step along the slow path of middle-class proletarianization being worked even upon the medical profession by the magic of neoliberal capitalism. The really powerful trade unions now left after the eclipse of blue and white collar power are not really ‘trade’ unions at all, but organisations that shore up landownership and the forms of cultural and social capital through which privilege is quietly reproduced. I was grateful to get a window into their world in and around my time at the ORFC.

And so, without further ado, I now present to you my shortlist for the worst trade union in the world award. First up, let’s hear it for the Duchy of Cornwall, as represented at the ORFC by its Secretary, Mr Alastair Martin. If you’re not up on your British constitutional history, the Duchy was founded by Edward III in 1337 to provide an income to his son and heir. And it’s still doing the business 700 years later for the present heir to the throne, Prince Charles, and six other members of his immediate family, in the form of a 135,000 acre portfolio of prime British real estate, mostly west country farmland.

Now I must admit, apparently unlike the majority of my fellow Brits I’ve never had much time for the royal family. Parasites. Feudal relics. All that bowing, scraping and toadying. Please. Still, despite his dodgy letters to the government, I suppose I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Charles, whose heart seems to be in the right place on various matters and who enjoys something of a reputation as a do-gooder. So it was salutary to be reminded by Mr Martin that the primary purpose of the Duchy is to furnish its incumbent with cold, hard cash.

Well, fair play to the man – as an advocate of agrarian proprietorship I have no problem at all with the idea of furnishing the necessities of life from a piece of land. But, as an egalitarian-minded one, I do have a bit of a problem if those pieces of land are distributed too unevenly. I mean, I don’t want to go overboard – I don’t subscribe to the notion that everybody always has to have exactly the same. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that a reasonable distribution would allocate no more than nine times more resources to the richest than the poorest. And let’s further assume that – as a result of his obviously superior intelligence, charm and good looks – Charles takes his rightful place in the upper echelons of this hierarchy, with the remainder of these fair isles allocated to its 64 million populace according to a rough bell curve, such that the richest 4% of the population, like Charles, each have a Duchy of Cornwall sized 135,000 acres to play with, whereas the poorest 4% have to scrape by with a measly 15,000 acres each. As pragmatic a compromise between modest egalitarianism and the natural differentiation of the human tribe as one could possibly imagine, don’t you think? And, on that basis, a few simple calculations reveal that the British populace would require something a little shy of 3 trillion square kilometres of land for their lebensraum – or around 21 times more than the entire land surface of the planet.

Get outta here, Charles – you’re a leech on the face of the earth.

Mr Martin made the further point that much of the Duchy’s land was farmed by tenants who could concentrate on the business of farming without the troublesome burden of landownership weighing on their minds – a liberation that he considered made them more efficient. But I’d venture to reframe his point thus: if you have no secure tenure to fall back on you’ll probably try to maximise your short-term income any darned way you can. And that, in a single sentence, pretty much encapsulates the emergence of capitalism, which arguably started right here in merrie England for exactly that reason – converting secure customary tenures into short-term fiscal leases created an upwards ratchet upon agricultural output. The rest, as they say, is history – and not one that ultimately turned out too well for the power of the monarchy and the wider aristocracy. And yet here they still are, the royal duchies and all the rest, owning land all over the place – a trade union of undeserving landowners. Parasites, as I said earlier. Feudal relics.

Next up, the National Farmers’ Union, as represented at the ORFC by Guy Smith, NFU vice-president. I’ve got to tip my hat to Mr Smith for straying from the safety of the Oxford Farming Conference across the road and daring to enter the lion’s den of the Oxford Real Farming Conference where he was given a predictably rough reception. To adopt a cricketing metaphor, when a batsman is facing a hostile attack it’s best to keep it simple, which was perhaps what was on Mr Smith’s mind as he dead batted every question like Faf du Plessis weathering an over of Moeen Ali teasers. Whereas Faf’s defensive measure of choice is a forward prod to silly mid-off, Mr Smith protected his stumps with the heavy bat of consumer demand, arguing that while there may indeed be many things wrong with the food and farming system, there’s nothing that farmers can do about them and there’s no alternative but to give the consumer exactly what s/he wants. Presumably the NFU policy favouring maize silage for anaerobic digestion emerges from this same public clamour. Certainly, the last time I was abroad on my local high street I heard shoppers talk of little else.

‘Consumer demand’ seems to be a clinching gambit for a lot of people these days about the sad reality of the way the world is, regardless of our fondest wishes. It’s not one that I personally find very convincing for several reasons that perhaps I’ll spell out in another post – but more importantly for my present purposes it’s surely not one that any self-respecting trade unionist should find convincing. How would it sound if a trade unionist said “sure, we’d all like safer working conditions in this mine/higher wages in this factory etc. but consumer demand being what it is the market will never bear it”. The whole point of being a trade unionist is that you organise politically in order to change what the market will bear in the direction of your favoured policies. I’m not the first to suggest that supposedly ‘free’ markets are essentially creations of monopoly capital working in concert with the state in support of the former’s interests (as George Monbiot likes to point out, you can tell a lot from the fact that DEFRA is headquartered at 17 Smith Square, and the NFU at 16 Smith Square). Nor am I the first to suggest that the NFU basically represents the interests of larger scale, wealthier farmers. I get the sense of a powerful and exclusive trade union busily organising in its members’ interests not to change the market in order to preserve policies which suit it very well. Helplessness in the face of consumer demand is a veil of economic power.

Some of Mr Smith’s other remarks were equally informative. Against the charge that contemporary farming practices were damaging soil he referenced Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the US dustbowl. The extent to which the dustbowl really was a result of farming practices is debatable, but let’s just go with the logic of Mr Smith’s position – farmers have been wrecking soils for at least 80 years, so why should anyone start caring now? Finally, Mr Smith mentioned his pride in the barn owls living on his farm, and reckoned that the government ought to pay him £500,000 for each one. Er, why? I’ve always done my best to counter the crude and unfair stereotype of the farmer as subsidy-junky, but you’re not helping Mr Smith, you’re really not helping…

The third and final contender is Oxford University – well, let’s extend it to Cambridge University too. As I walked among the university’s dreaming spires in the course of the conference, various among the younger generation within my extended family were waiting to hear whether they’d received an offer to study there. The key variable for success, as it proved, was whether they’d received a private education. And it doesn’t just apply to my family – only 7% of people in Britain are privately educated, whereas 44% of Oxford’s students are. It seems an Oxbridge education unlocks the door to the upper echelons of public and private sector power in the UK: only 1% of the UK public is educated there, but its graduates comprise 75% of senior judges, 59% of cabinet ministers, 57% of permanent secretaries, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 44% of public body chairs and 33% of BBC executives. Talk about a closed trade union shop…

And the winner is: Hold your horses, hold your horses. In true awards ceremony style I’m going to keep you on tenterhooks by handing out the runner-up prize first. And that prize goes to…Oxford and Cambridge universities. Unquestionably a cancer within British society which narrows the perspective and the representativeness of key institutions and builds an inherent conservatism into them, nevertheless I have to concede that these universities do leave the door of their closed shop oh so very slightly ajar to new blood from the lumpen masses. True, it’s mostly window dressing…but there’s good research being done by good people at these places. And so I’m happy to concede that they’re the best of the bad bunch on show here.

We now come to the gold and silver positions. At first I was minded to award the gold to Mr Smith. After all, Oxbridge and the Duchy of Cornwall are only doing what comes naturally to them – defending inherited privilege, just as they’ve always done. But you, Mr Smith, are a trade unionist. You’re supposed to be representing farmers. Perhaps you’re even supposed to be representing agriculture. Why not offer an enlightened vision of the role it can play in delivering a just and sustainable world, instead of hiding behind the false god of consumer demand in order to promote a self-serving conservative agenda?

But on reflection I’ve decided that Mr Smith only merits silver…probably. Because if there’s one single thing that stands in the way of that just and sustainable agrarian future it’s the structure of landownership in this country, and the near impossibility for most people of owning what the great Dick Gaughan calls one handful of earth. To be fair, aristocratic landownership is only one part of the problem, but it’s emblematic of the pernicious death grip that money and privilege always have over real estate. That grip needs to be loosened before there’s the remotest possibility of achieving the small farm future that I believe is needed to achieve sustainability and social justice, so I hope that the gold medal I hereby award to the Duchy of Cornwall will go some way to helping loosen it. Step forward Mr Martin. Unless…well, I said that the Duchy of Cornwall only probably merits gold because, under questioning by small-scale market gardeners and land rights activists, Mr Martin said that the Duchy might consider making land available for small, alt-ag concerns. So if it donates, let’s say, 120,000 acres freehold to around 6,000 would be farmers, Small Farm Future is prepared to be magnanimous and downgrade the Duchy’s award to silver or bronze.

Before I close, and while I’m in the business of parading this cast of shifty characters across the halls of disrepute, perhaps it’s appropriate that I turn the spotlight a little closer to home. For although I’m scarcely a landowner in Prince Charles’s league, nevertheless I have a stake in property, not least my humble eighteen acres of finest Somersetshire, which most likely puts me in serious kulak territory. And while I refuse to yield to the scantily-mortgaged denizens of multiply-zero valued townhouses as they grumble about access to the countryside, I’m all too aware of what an extraordinarily privileged position I’m in compared to the majority of the world’s labourers and farmworkers. If there were truly effective unions organising the wretched of the earth, I suspect that many of us here in the UK would have a lot of rethinking to do about our expectations of the world.

The modern commons

My previous post addressed the ancient agricultural commons of preindustrial England. Here I’m going to look at some issues about contemporary commons, before wrapping up this little odyssey on the commoning theme in my next post.

Although many agricultural commons still exist among small-scale farmers globally, the hot commons issues nowadays aren’t about common land resources so much as intellectual property rights, copyright, digital commons and so forth. I can’t say that I’m much of an expert on all that, but since my main occupations are as a small-scale farmer and a small-scale writer I do have a passing interest in the issues.

I recently came across a debate from a few years back on Josef Davies-Coates United Diversity blog which splendidly traverses the terrain I wish to explore. Davies-Coates unilaterally published an electronic version of permaculture writer Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden on his site, prompting Hemenway to request a takedown: “Why would you steal from your colleagues and teachers like this? It makes it very hard to write again if we aren’t supported,” Hemenway wrote, “Free is not sustainable”.

Cue an extensive, heated debate involving a cast of hundreds the like of which I’ve not witnessed since, er, Hemenway last posted his thoughts here on Small Farm Future. I can’t summarize all the arguments of Davies-Coates and his supporters, but I think the key ones are these:

  1. free online content will probably help boost hard copy sales – or, to put it another way, there’s money to be made from the internet if you know how
  2. “Commons-based peer production of free software and content” is more sustainable than copyright/private property rights based models, essentially because it’s a model of sharing and abundance, of ‘free culture’ for a ‘free society’, as opposed to the artificially-imposed scarcity involved in property rights based systems
  3. copyright infringement is not analogous to theft: the former is deprivation of potential earnings, whereas the latter is deprivation of property
  4. creators – including authors – ought to be fairly compensated for their efforts
  5. all creative work is derivative – or, in the words of one commenter, “Donkeys like Mr. Hemenway are just regurgitating stuff he has read or learned from others….Writing his book while standing on the combined experience of the entire human race, and calling it his property, is like me sitting in a boat and calling the ocean mine”

What to make of all this? Maybe a helpful starting point is a clear definition of what a commons or ‘commons-based peer production’ actually is, namely a resource (like a pasture, or, nowadays, perhaps a computer operating system) whose usage is not restricted to a single owner but is available to a specific wider community in accordance with a set of usage protocols enforceable by and upon that community.

Notice, then, what a commons is not: it is not a free for all, an open access regime where anybody can use the resource as they wish without reference to the community’s usage protocols, which invariably specify who can use the resource and how they can use it. Notice, too, how a traditional agricultural commons worked: it made the fruits of land available to (usually poor) people who did not own the land, but were then entitled to private gain from it (eg. by grazing a cow on common pasture and then selling its milk). And notice, finally, that some things are ‘common pool resources’ and not actual commons because the usage community and usage protocols are not clearly defined, and probably can’t be: these include the stock of human knowledge, biodiversity, the global atmosphere and indeed most things that people nowadays like to call the ‘global commons’, which is basically an oxymoron.

A lot of people today, myself included, feel that private property rights have gone too far in many spheres of life. We’re drawn to commons as an alternative model, and since we’re reacting against private individual rights we tend to emphasize the communal aspect of the commons, and not to notice the private property rights they involve. But these rights are critical: a common pasture is of no benefit to the commoner who cannot sell the milk from the cow she grazes on it.

OK, let me put this back into the context of the Hemenway – Davies-Coates debate. Certainly, creative work is derivative of our forebears, as is simply being alive. Does that mean that nobody is entitled to claim ownership of what they’ve produced? I don’t see the logic there (except in one specific sense I’ll come to). The stock of human knowledge is available to other people to make what they will of it, as Hemenway has done. If you think that what he’s made of it is worthless regurgitation then you’re at liberty not to buy it, but I don’t see how this entitles you to replicate his regurgitations as you wish. In that sense, copyright infringement is entirely analogous to theft. What, after all, makes a thing like my tractor my property and not yours? Not really any specific relation between me and the particular bits and pieces constituting my tractor, but – like copyright – a social relationship of convention between me and other people in my community acknowledging that those bits and pieces are for me, and not you, to use as I wish, principally in fact for making potential earnings (since, hobbying aside, why else would I want a tractor?) On that note, as a farmer I’m in exactly the same position as Hemenway the author. On land husbanded by my forebears, I sow seeds bred by my forebears, tend them with tools and techniques developed by my forebears, and then I sell the product of my labour to make money for myself.

I suspect that people find a farmer selling regurgitated human knowledge in the form of vegetables less objectionable than a writer selling regurgitated human knowledge in the form of books, though it’s not really clear to me why. But in fact as a farmer I encounter some of the same attitude: the land and its products should not be bought and sold for private gain. I’m sympathetic to that notion, provided that it’s applied equitably across society. On his website, Davies-Coates asked Hemenway if he honestly had no mp3s on his hard drive that he hadn’t paid for, but you could turn that line of questioning back on itself. Did Davies-Coates steal his computer, pay nothing to his internet service provider, electricity company and so forth? Generally I find that people who think I shouldn’t profit from my writing or my farming seem much less worried about the profits that accrue in other sectors of the economy.

More than in most of those other sectors, farmers and writers – productive, creative occupations both – find themselves too easily at the mercy of middlemen who profit excessively on the back of their creativity and narrow the range of what it’s possible for them to create. The internet has brought creative benefits in making it easier for people to upload and share what they want, but we delude ourselves if we think that it’s some kind of new creative commons. On the contrary, what’s happening is that those middlemen controlling the circulation of content (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple etc) are making a mint, while those producing it are increasingly squeezed and expected to produce it for nothing – a point made nicely in Emilie Bickerton’s article ‘Culture after Google’ which you can read here absolutely free! For now at least. Anyway, I think Hemenway had it right: free is not sustainable.

Well, maybe free could be sustainable, but only in what some of the commenters on Davies-Coates’ post were calling a ‘gift economy’. So let’s be clear about what a gift economy means. This week you take my book and publish it on the internet, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Next week I take your car, and there’s nothing you can do to stop that – though maybe I’ll give it back in a month, or a year. Do such economies exist? Yes, but they’re not usually ones in which people have books or cars to give away. They’re usually so-called ‘primitive’ societies in which almost everyone is engaged in the same basic subsistence activities – foraging or farming, making their own tools and their own shelter – and in which they have long-term, face-to-face relationships with their gift partners. One of the commenters on Davies-Coates blog – the one who called Hemenway a donkey, who turns out to be a fellow farmer – showed an awareness of this issue, writing “I’m not sure I want everyone growing their own food. Who would I sell to?”

Exactly so. A gift economy is one which enforces strong egalitarianism through weak development of material culture, and in which everyone pretty much takes care of themselves. I don’t think it’s such a bad economy for all that. I think there’s a lot to be learned from it. But it’s streets, absolutely streets, away from how people actually live nowadays in the UK or the USA.

In an impressively forgiving follow-up, Hemenway wrote,

“I just have a big piece of my life invested in the old system, and, like a conservative farmer, pulling it loose is a slow process that both legally and financially I can’t do overnight. We’re in an interesting time, where the old and the new are both working, neither one perfectly, often with conflict, and we’re not at resolution yet.”

Indeed we’re not at resolution yet. We do not inhabit anything remotely resembling a gift economy. Some of the commenters endorsing Davies-Coates’ line of argument even confessed to moonlighting for cash in the mainstream economy in order that they could produce their proper work for free. That’s not a gift economy, and it gives no high ground from which to criticise Hemenway. Actually, there are two contradictory strands in the anti-Hemenway line of argument, as per points (1) and (2) in my summary above. One is that if you upload a lot of stuff for free, then you’ll probably make more money in the long run. The other is that you should upload stuff for free, and you shouldn’t be trying to make money from it. If I were Hemenway, I’d have been much less conciliatory either way. On the first count, it’s his decision and not Davies-Coates’ as to how he chooses to market his work. And on the second, if you want to have a gift economy then fine – you upload my book, then I’ll come and have your computer. In any case, permaculture is supposed to be about whole system design, not piecemeal slagging of individual people for the way they make a living.

Nevertheless, I think there’s some truth in the notions of ‘abundance’ and ‘free culture’ on the Davies-Coates’ side of the argument, because the existing mainstream economy does create artificial scarcity, and it’s not so difficult for people to create abundant lives collectively. But it is quite difficult, especially if there are others who freeride on your efforts. ‘Abundance’ or ‘free culture’ too easily morph in our present market society mindset into getting something for nothing. The ancient commoners knew that culture is never really free, and that if their way of life was to persist in the face of those looking to exploit them and the landscapes they inhabited then they needed to define their community and its protocols of reciprocity with great care. It’s a lesson that the would be commoners of today need to learn too.

Can we learn it? I’m not sure. I’ll try to pull together some of the issues from this post and the last to address that question in my next post. Which I’ll be uploading on the internet for free. However, I’ve decided to add a ‘Donate’ button to this blog so that those who get something out of my writing can have the opportunity of giving something back, courtesy of the free WordPress plugin you’ll see installed on the sidebar of my site. Now there’s a gift economy for you.

Maybe I’ll check the balance before answering my question…