No farm future, no growth future, no farmer future: a SFF bulletin

Let me offer you a brief news roundup from the Small Farm Future editorial chair.

First up, this website’s favorite Guardian journalist George Monbiot has been unleashing his inner ecomodernist again with an article about producing protein for human consumption via bacteria that metabolize hydrogen produced from electrolysis of water using renewable electricity. So no soils or plants or actual farming involved, much to George’s delight.

I think George’s motivations are irreproachable, so I’m inclined to refrain from too intemperate a response. But one issue for me is that techno-fixery of this sort always neglects the underlying political economy – and this results in a losing game of whack-a-mole piecemeal solution-mongering that mis-specifies the problem as a technical one of overcoming resource limits rather than a socio-political one grounded in dynamics like economic growth. Another issue that interests me is George’s enthusiasm for the prosaic character of hydrogen-grazing bacteria as a way of puncturing the veneer of old-time agrarian romance that shields the horrors of industrial agriculture from public view. My feeling on the contrary is that only by properly inhabiting that romance and re-enchanting the relationship between people and land as a precious food-giving resource will the problems George identifies be solvable.

Anthony Galluzzo suggests that this kind of techno-fixery ducks the real issue of thinking through what a sustainable agroecological food system might look like and I must admit I think he’s got a point. One of the best attempts I’ve come across to do just that is Simon Fairlie’s 2010 book Meat: A Benign Extravagance, which I’ve been re-reading recently in the context of drafting my own book and been struck afresh at the brilliance of Simon’s analysis. George endorsed Simon’s book at the time, and I do wonder why he seems to have abandoned that line of reasoning in favour of a less ecological and more modernist ideology.

Talking of economic growth as I was, the notorious ‘skeptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg has weighed in with a critique of the degrowth movement. To my mind there’s an awful lot of dreck in his analysis, which I really have no inclination to rifle through here except to make two general observations. First, according to the IPCC as interpreted by Lomborg the impact of climate change in 2100 will cost only between 2-4% of GDP. This strikes me as a pretty meaningless assertion, but taking it at face value and assuming that the average global economic growth over the last five years of 2.8% is sustained over the 21st century (and it’s hard to imagine the economy surviving in its present form if growth is much lower) by my calculations that implies that global output in 2100 will be around US$800 trillion at present value, compared to its current US$80 trillion. I find it hard to imagine what the world in 2100 will find to do with another 9 helpings of our present global output in the unlikely event that it manages to create it. More to the point, 3% of 800 trillion dollars spent on climate change in 2100 amounts to about 30% of the world’s entire present output – so it looks like climate change may turn out to be pretty costly after all, even by the lights of a complacent analysis like this. Figures of this kind make me think that whatever the Lomborgs of this world would have us believe, a change is gonna come, and well before 2100.

Second, Lomborg writes “With blinkered analysis and misplaced concern, the [degrowth] academics essentially say that to reduce global warming slightly, we should end growth that can lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, avoid millions of air pollution deaths, and give billions the opportunity of a better life through improved health care, shelter, education, and income. There is something deeply disturbing about academics’ telling others to forgo the benefits they have enjoyed. What the world really needs is far more growth and far less hypocrisy.” This trope of ‘hypocrisy’ levelled at people who say that the benefits currently enjoyed by those of us lucky enough to live in the rich countries of the world will soon come to an end and cannot feasibly be spread across all of humanity seems to me a huge obstacle for devising workable and equitable solutions to global problems and really ought to be laid to rest. For my part, I salute the degrowth theorists for looking the future unflinchingly in the face and calling it as they see it – which, as I understand it, is not that the poorest people in the world need to stay as poor as they are, but that the richest people in the world need to be less rich. I’d recommend steering clear of Lomborg and reading these sensible suggestions from Jason Hickel for policies to unite both the degrowthers and the greengrowthers instead.

And talking of looking the future in the face, a paper that passed across my desktop reports that nearly a third of US citizens think that Jesus Christ will return within the next 40 years, signalling the end of the world – and are therefore unconcerned about trivial matters such as imminent environmental meltdown, despite often having relatively sustainable farming traditions in their backgrounds. Really, I had no idea…I might have to tear up my book draft and start again. Or just wait for the reckoning.

Now onto yet another dose of techno-futurism from yet another of this site’s favourite Guardian men – John Harris – this time concerning robotic farming. The idea is that once farm machinery is fully automated it can be downscaled and farming can be undertaken more ecologically by farm bots that can remove weeds by flaming them with lasers rather than using herbicides. Presumably instead of ploughing they’d also go large with the laser-weeding prior to sowing the crop. That’s a lot of lasering. And a lot of agrarian change. “I expected farmers to be quite luddite about the adoption of new technology,” robot farming pioneer Ben Scott-Robinson told Harris. “Some are, but there are a load of them who understand that new things need to happen.” When Harris asked him what the downsides were to the approach, Scott-Robinson said “Erm… well, at the moment, we can’t see any.”

So let me offer two suggestions. First, in one word, energy. And second in two words for anyone who uses the word ‘luddite’ pejoratively, labour dynamics. C’mon John, you’re a Labour man, you can’t let him get away with that! And on that note, here’s a nice article by Max Ajl critiquing the idea of a green new deal via, among many other things, the suggestion that we need to frame a new agrarian question of labour. Quite so. And another nice article by Joe Lowndes on the populist tradition in the USA and the perils of left populism – much to ponder there, which I hope to write on soon. My thanks to the ever-attentive Anthony Galluzzo for keeping me appraised of such things. I found both articles a sight for sore eyes in sketching the wider context of the global political economy, particularly the global agrarian political economy – something entirely missing from Jane O’Sullivan’s populationist worldview.

Ah yes, Dr O’Sullivan – she’s weighed in again in our simmering debate about population with a rejoinder that I find flawed in numerous ways. Clearly we’re never going to agree on much, and I find it a rather soul-sapping business engaging in this debate and trying to get to the basis of our empirical and political disagreements. So I’m wondering if any of the much-valued commenters on this site might give me a steer as to whether they’d find another response from me on this of interest, or whether it’s better to move to pastures new?

And finally I’m off (and offline) for a few days next week to give my first presentation to an academic audience for about a gazillion years. Hopefully I’ll be back in action by the week’s end, ready to unleash some more old nags thoroughbreds from the Small Farm Future stable.

Our political saviors: the republicans

Let’s move on from the population debate and ransack the Small Farm Future archives for another controversy to rake over. Ah, how about this one, in which I presented civic republicanism (CR) as a political tradition worthy of consideration for our troubled times (yeah, I wasn’t referring to those republicans). I’d like to try nudging that issue forward a little here – particularly in the light of the criticisms of CR made by Stephen Gey in an article linked by Jody that I finally got around to reading. My thanks to her for drawing my attention to it.

A couple of scene-setting remarks. I don’t have much taste for abstract theorizing about the politically ideal society. But it seems clear that under numerous intersecting pressures the way the world has done politics over the last century or two is changing, and I think it’s as well to try one’s best to influence the changes in positive rather than negative directions in the given circumstances (in that remark alone I reveal my republican sympathies, but let’s leave that thought to lie…) Influential writers within the environmental movement like Paul Kingsnorth and David Fleming (building on the likes of Leopold Kohr) have to a greater or lesser degree assimilated localism to ethnic, ‘tribal’ or communitarian identities – believing that outside contemporary political institutions like the European Union there are forms of more deeply inherent pre-political identity between people which will enable them to forge better political agreements. I think this is a mistake. One of the benefits of CR is that it doesn’t assume political agreements just emerge when you have the correct ‘natural’ community. For republicans, there is no natural community – only ones that emerge out of political deliberation.

Incidentally, on that note I’ve just started reading Pieter Judson’s history of the Habsburg Empire – “the prison of nations” according to the 19th century nationalists seeking to dissolve it. Judson’s argument is that we’ve become too influenced by them and have bought into their narrative of ethnic nations preceding the empire, rather than seeing the way that the empire was in many ways constitutive of the nations. In any case, what interests me about CR is the resources it offers to try to create viable and sustainable successor polities to our present world ‘empire’ of nation-states that are as pleasant to live in as possible under the circumstances we face of increasing ecological, economic and political disorder.

Gey’s fundamental critique of CR is that it insists on defining collective goals for society, and thereby risks creating a tyranny of the majority. What if, when all the deliberation is over, it’s decided that everyone called Chris should be enslaved, or that other more obvious categories should be denied privileges – that women or non-property holders should not be permitted to deliberate, for example? For Gey, CR accords enormous power to the collective polis, whereas liberal or pluralist political theories take a more limited view of government. For them, a society’s ethos can’t be defined by collectively-decided singularities, which threaten to become tyrannical. Theirs is a live-and-let-live approach, where political society is one long argument that’s never resolved except in the meta-agreement that people agree to disagree. Perhaps their strongest emphasis is on limiting the power of arbitrary government.

Gey makes some telling points, but I also think there are problems with his line of argument. For one thing, I don’t see that the problem of excluding minorities is particular to CR. Every political doctrine defines the scope of the political community and potentially draws questionable lines of exclusion around it. Gey was a legal scholar and his piece is especially engaged with CR as articulated by a handful of republican legal theorists in the USA (Cass Sunstein in particular) – but CR is a wider tradition than I think he allows, and in much of it elaborate attention is devoted to the question of full and uncoerced participation in self-government. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), for example, was an early statement of the case for female political participation that was explicitly framed in republican terms against the view that there was a given or ‘natural’ political community comprising only propertied males.

But it’s true that CR doesn’t rest content with a minimalist framework of rules to live and let live by. The collective goals it defines through participation and deliberation are supposed to invest the citizenry’s practice. It strikes me that this is how all societies actually work, even if it’s not supposed to be how they work according to pluralist political theories. But CR certainly makes a stronger play for the idea than most political traditions. And a good thing too, in my opinion. In today’s world brought low by vast economic inequalities, climate change and other environmental degradations, I don’t think the pluralist who says to the republican “You presume to tell me that I must subordinate my particular interests to the wider common interest?” requires any more elaborate answer than “Damn right I do”. True, CR must pay attention to the possibility that notions of ‘the common good’ might mask oppressions of various kinds – but there’s plenty of attention to exactly that issue within its traditions. Its real emphasis is not on grimly enforcing majoritarian decisions of the “enslave all Chris’s” variety, but on developing the citizenry’s consciousness that immediate individual self-interest is usually a worse basis for building a good society than taking a broader society-wide view.

This brings me to Machiavelli (1469-1527) – the key thinker who paved the way for modern CR out of its classical roots. One aspect of Machiavelli’s politics was the need to avoid ‘factions’. For Gey, this republican antipathy to factionalism is another example of its potential tyranny – in a live-and-let-live world, politics is always inherently factional. But the problem with factions for Machiavelli is that they represent private interests, proposing laws “not for the common liberty, but for their own power” (Machiavelli Discourses I.18). Machiavelli calls this tendency to put private goods or interests over public ones ‘corruption’ (so for him ‘corruption’ means something different from our modern fingers-in-the-till sense of the term). Modern liberal political philosophy has come up with all sorts of arguments to suggest that, on the contrary, private interests beget public goods, of which Adam Smith’s metaphor of ‘the invisible hand of the market’ is probably the most famous. But even Smith looked admiringly at republican thought before concluding that it was inappropriate for an emerging commercial society. I think that’s true, but my contention here is that we now urgently need to transcend commercial society and create agrarian societies to which republicanism is better suited. And it’s also that anyone who thinks the ‘invisible hand of the market’ metaphor still usefully explains why government should take a back seat to the pursuit of private interests hasn’t been paying attention.

A few additional thoughts on delivering and living an agrarian republic. I find Machiavelli’s analysis of the ‘tumults’ (popular uprisings) that occur in republics of interest. He thought that in a relatively uncorrupted republic tumults can stave off corruption by preventing factions and re-vivifying political institutions, whereas in corrupted republics they merely accelerate corruption by enhancing factions and prompting violence between them. It interests me to think about some recent ‘tumults’ in western politics along these lines. There are those, for example, who think the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump were re-vivifying moves, and I do understand their logic. But to my mind rather they were signs of a corrupt factionalism that worked against ‘the common liberty’. Indeed, I think they were hyper-corrupt inasmuch as they probably work largely against the interests of many of those who supported them (though maybe less so in the case of Trump, who despite all the populist hue and cry still drew much of his support from wealthy white men). At the same time, I’d have to concede that the alternatives on offer weren’t much less corrupt.

So I’m not sure how much faith I now have in formal political processes in western politics to deliver an uncorrupted republic. In that sense, perhaps I’ve moved closer to a position I associated with David Fleming and criticized a while back in this post. Fleming wrote, “There is no case for dismantling the market; that will be done for us, all too soon” and “The task….is not about wrestling with the controls of economics to force it in the direction of degrowth, but about getting ready for the moment when the coming climacteric does the heavy work of degrowth for us”. In the discussion under that post, Shaun Chamberlin wrote that Fleming (whose book he edited) didn’t advocate sitting back and passively observing the demise of the market economy. Rather, he perceived “a far more urgent priority for our action – rebuilding the informal economy of community and culture that he foresees we will have to again rely on after the market economy fails us”. I’d pretty much go along with that, except that – as I said back then in response to Shaun – I think I’d place more emphasis than Fleming on political deliberation in that process and less on culture and religion (leafing again through Fleming’s tome, I see that there are quite a few CR ideas investing it, though he placed less emphasis on them than other concerns).

Culture and religion are important too, though, and I hope to write some more about them soon. Under my last post, Joe Clarkson wrote “I am prepared to be made poor (without making anyone else richer, so don’t volunteer to take my assets) and would welcome the circumstances which would force that condition on me and the rest of the rich world. I hope it happens soon.” To me, this is an excellently republican commitment to civic goals – a regrettably rare one in the contemporary rich world, but one that will probably become more widespread under the impress of events. Somehow it has to become a motivator of individual practice, but I’m not sure that it’s something best thought of under the rubrics of culture, religion or personal ethics. Perhaps it could be seen as a philosophical spiritualism of the kind familiar from Taoism in the east and Stoicism in the west (there are links between Stoicism and CR in antiquity, for example in the thought of Cicero). Or maybe just as the lived reality of republicanism’s collective goals.

But for now, I want to get back to the politics. The way I’d see republican political deliberation potentially emerging in the future is along the lines of what I called the ‘supersedure state’ in this post. It seems to me quite likely that people in many parts of the world will find the tendrils of the liberal-democratic capitalist state slowly withering without any other kind of political force necessarily filling the breach, making it increasingly necessary for them to self-organize by default. In these circumstances, people won’t find themselves a part of some obvious natural community with ready-made customs and procedures. Instead, they’ll be a random agglomeration trying to make things up as they go along in the persisting shadow of the capitalist world-economy. In that situation, I think CR has much to contribute.

Some of Gey’s strongest arguments against CR relate to the difficulties of implementing it in large-scale modern capitalist societies. By his own admission, these diminish the more you approach a smaller-scale, more face-to-face society in which more direct forms of deliberation are possible. In his words,

“by trying to recreate a modern version of the old model of direct democracy, the modern civic republicans end up preserving the bad things about the classical civic republican community – its conformism, inhospitality to dissent, and antidemocratic deference to some unassailable collective ideal such as “civic virtue” – while failing to recapture the old system’s one real advantage – its homey, personal, face-to-face means of identifying and achieving common goals.” (p.815)

This indeed is the kind of situation I have in mind for a future where CR fits the bill. I’d acknowledge the dangers of conformism and inhospitality to dissent that Gey identifies, though as I mentioned earlier I think the CR tradition is more robust to them than he supposed (CR isn’t the same as direct democracy). But I suspect this issue springs so readily to mind because when we think about small-scale agrarian societies we find numerous historical examples of authoritarianism, patriarchy, gerontocracy, caste oppression and other ‘illiberal’ forms of rule. I need to ponder this some more, but I’d like to make a few interim remarks about it.

Arguments for small-scale self-provisioning can’t really avoid being arguments for ‘family farming’. Since families are differentiated by gender and age, it’s necessary to consider both dimensions as potential sites for coercion and domination. And since family farms are differentiated by size, income and land quality, the potential for coercion and domination between farms as well as within them demands attention.

Focusing on coercion and domination within the individual farm, this seems to vary culturally – that is, the forces of coercion and domination are greater in some small farm societies than others in ways that aren’t obviously related to their agrarian character (though perhaps they may be less obviously related…?) But one aspect of agrarianism that does bear on gender and age oppression is the importance of property and inheritance, and therefore by implication local standing – the ‘family name’ – which bears heavily on young people, young women in particular. One reason for this is that status is easily lost, and among poor cultivators that can be economically disastrous, as is all too apparent for example from analysis of medieval peasantries in Europe among whom people were often only a bad harvest, a bout of illness or a questionable investment in land or marriage markets away from servitude.

But that insecurity wasn’t simply a given of agrarian life – it stemmed from extreme seigneurial domination. In more recent times, CR has invested the idea of a republic of property-owning smallholders who are not subject to that kind of domination. The best known of these times in the English-speaking countries are the aftermath of the English Civil War and the aftermath of the American Revolution. In the first case, James Harrington’s Oceana made the CR argument for a republic of smallholders, while in the second the best-known proponent was Thomas Jefferson. But it was the absolutism of Hobbes and the liberalism of Locke that won out in drawing the terms of the political debate in the first case, and the commercialism of Hamilton in the second, presaging the entirely non-republican age of commercial capitalism whose dying days now seem upon us. Republicanism has waned not because it was wrong, but because it lost those old political battles, and was less suited to the societies that emerged in the light of them.

So what really interests me is whether we may be entering another ‘Machiavellian moment’ when smallholder republicanism may, at least in some places, arise as a response to new times and challenges. If it does, I think the small farm futures it’ll bring about could look quite different from some of the small farm pasts that presently inflect our thinking about what small farm societies are like, successfully limiting some of the forms of domination I mentioned above that are often associated with those pasts. But only if we keep the channels of republican deliberation open. And even then, I perceive some serpents in the garden of which I hope to write more soon.

The transition from capitalism to feudalism

Historians have spilled a lot of ink on the question of how capitalism supplanted feudalism, but what will happen in the future if by design, default or disaster our present capitalist society is supplanted by a lower energy alternative with more people devoting themselves to the agrarian arts? Will historians of the future be writing of the transition from capitalism to feudalism?

‘Feudalism’ can be a misleading term. Really, it refers to situations of weak political centralisation, parcellized sovereignty and low population density that were uncommon historically and were arguably limited only to parts of Europe and Japan. But people often use it as a shorthand term for more or less any kind of agrarian society, and those of us who advocate a small farm future are often met with the horrified response that it would amount to the return of feudalism or serfdom. Fortunately, these are only two among many of the forms that past agrarian societies took, and they occupy pretty much the least appealing part of the spectrum. Still, the question remains – would the social structure of a small farm future look anything like that of the small farm past, and if so shouldn’t we be worried about it?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that until I get my crystal ball back from the cleaners, but what I can do is offer some wider reflections on the structure of agrarian societies that might at least cast some light on the issue. The historical sociology of the transition to capitalism has been dominated by Marxist thinkers who emphasise the nature of production, energy capture and class relations between the owners of capital and the owners of labour. Illuminating stuff, but what I want to stress here is the nature of agrarian society as a status order (the relevant sociological pioneer here being Max Weber – cue boos and hisses from the Marxists). As I’ll discuss below, and still more in my next post, the interesting thing about this approach is the continuities rather than the differences that emerge across the divide between pre-modern agrarian societies, modern capitalist ones (which are also, of course, agrarian) and most likely the post-modern post-capitalist agrarian societies of the future.

I’ll spare the reader a precis of Weberian sociology, and instead come at my theme obliquely with an analysis of the varna categories bequeathed from ancient Indian thought. This is only by way of exemplification – should you wish to follow up the particularities, the key analysts I’m drawing on are McKim Marriott and Murray Milner1, both summarised in this superb book. Should you wish otherwise I hope you’ll bear with me anyway – I trust the relevance of my argument will emerge, in the next post if not in this one.

The varna categories – priest, king, farmer, servant – are outlined in a famous passage from the Rig Veda:

When they divided The Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet? His mouth became the brahman [priest]; his arms were made into the rajanya [king/warrior]; his thighs the vaishyas [farmers/’people’]; and from his feet the shudra [servants] were born.

When we look at how the varna categories were actually filled in Indian society historically there are various ambiguities, most importantly for my present purposes around the vaishya category, which rather than being a category heavily populated by a mass of farmers in fact is sparsely populated by merchant castes, with farmers mostly occupying the shudra category. I’ll come back to this shortly.

The varna categories replicate a basic structure common to numerous non-industrial agrarian societies (see, for example, David Priestland’s Merchant, Soldier, Sage or Ernest Gellner’s Plough, Sword and Book), which roughly speaking is:

  • king/warrior/noble
  • priest
  • merchant
  • farmer
  • servant/client/slave/outcast

Of course, these groups interact with each other materially in various ways. In India, as in all societies, material transactions are freighted with numerous social meanings – but perhaps in India more than in most societies. Depending on exactly what’s being transacted, it’s possible to speak very broadly of a kind of ‘hot potato’ or scapegoat way of thinking about transactions there: certain material things typically embody bad qualities, inauspiciousness (or maybe what we’d call ‘sin’ in Western religious traditions), which means that generally it’s good to give, and not so good to receive. Perhaps we can sense an echo of this even in contemporary capitalist society. To be the recipient of a gift isn’t always morally innocent – it can lower your social status with respect to the donor.

So each of the four varna categories has a characteristic transactional strategy associated with it. The king adopts the ‘maximal’ strategy of both giving and receiving extensively (as benefactor and tribute-taker). The priest adopts the ‘optimal’ strategy of giving but not receiving (seeking purity by passing on inauspiciousness and not receiving it). The vaishya (let’s keep it ambiguous for now who the vaishya actually is) adopts the ‘minimal’ strategy, neither receiving nor giving. The shudra (farmer/servant) adopts the ‘pessimal’ strategy of receiving but not giving, putting them at the bottom of the social pile.

Each of the four varna categories also has a characteristic ‘alter ego’, which represents a possibly disreputable version of themselves who in a sense stands outside acceptable society. The alter ego of the king is the bandit, who takes tribute by predatory violence. The king distinguishes himself from the bandit by two possible strategies. One is by legitimating his rule with respect to some kind of sacred authority (hence the close associations between kings and churches or priests), being a generous benefactor of temple building etc. The other is by being a ‘good king’ who protects and nurtures the people. In agrarian societies this amounts to a kind of protection racket, in which the king’s tribute-taking from ordinary people in order to endow his temples and generally act in a kingly manner is at least orderly and regularised, and he offers protection from the arbitrary violence of the bandit. But kings need a lot of tribute for their projects, so it’s easy for their exactions to become itself a kind of banditry and to be seen as such. Hence the numerous Robin Hood style myths – Good King Richard, Bad King John etc.

The alter ego of the priest is the renouncer – archetypically the penniless holy wo/man, the ascetic or the hermit who gives everything away and begs only enough to keep from starving. From this position almost outside society, they can critique its worldliness and corruption and attain great spiritual purity.

The alter ego of the vaishya as farmer is also the renouncer, who aspires to agrarian self-reliance. They don’t need many external inputs to furnish their household, nor do they need to go often to market. The strategy of the self-reliant ascetic, standing somewhat outside society is available to them.

On the face of it, the vaishya as merchant can’t adopt the minimal transactional strategy – after all, they’re buying and selling stuff the whole time. Potentially, and often actually, this is highly compromising to their social status. The ways around it are to act as if trade in mere objects is a trivial matter in which the merchant is not existentially implicated, allowing the cultivation of higher spiritual virtues (Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism would be a westernised version of this). Or else to use the profit to act like a king, and hope to convince people that you really are one.

The alter ego of the shudra is the outcast or untouchable. Receiving but not giving, and especially receiving polluting and inauspicious substances, puts you at the bottom of the heap, and potentially outside the heap altogether.

In terms of status ordering – well, the king is at the top, but in an agrarian society there can’t be many kings and it’s a high risk business. You have to exact a lot of tribute, endow a lot of benefices and fight off a lot of bandit would-be kings. The priest and the renouncer may also enjoy high status of a non-material kind if they can convince other people of their spiritual virtues. The vaishya-merchant is in a risky status position – nobody likes a usurer – but they may have ways of pulling the wool over people’s eyes and adopting a different status. The vaishya-farmer can’t claim much highfalutin status, but can effect a certain haughty independence and homespun honour. But in practice this status is often beyond the ordinary farmer’s means – a more likely result is that they’re a mere client or retainer of a higher ranking patron. Hence the relative lack of farmers in the vaishya category, and their strong showing among the shudras or, worse, in some unfree category – serf, debt-peon or slave. An awful lot of socio-historical drama in agrarian societies turns upon the way people try to augment social status – sometimes as a multi-generational strategy exceeding their own lifespan – according to their inherited potential in these various social roles.

I’m interested in this agrarian status structuring for two reasons. First, as I mentioned at the beginning, I wonder if it or something like it are generic to relatively low energy, localised agrarian societies. That would seem to be the case for many pre-modern agrarian societies. So in the event of a post-modern turn to agrarianism, could we expect things to look much different? I’m not drawn myself to the idea of a status order with everyone trying to climb up the greasy pole towards the few high status positions at the top, while seeking at all costs to avoid the miserable and deprecated ones at the base. Therefore, if this status structuring does seem particularly fitted to fully agrarian societies, I’d like to think of some ways to avoid this outcome.

Second, the rise of modernity, capitalism and industry seems to have swept away much of this pre-modern status order, but – as I’ll argue in my next post – much of it has arguably been retained in only a somewhat different guise, which adds further weight to the first point.

For me, the key relation in agrarian society is between the farmer and the king, or to put it in more generalised terms between the ‘citizen’ and ‘the state’. What is it like to be an ordinary person (ie. a farmer, generally speaking, or a tradesperson, in the agrarian economy) as a matter of political experience? The answer that seems burned into the modernist memory as it’s emerged from many pre-modern societies is that it’s pretty grim – the powerlessness of, say, an 18th century Russian serf or a 13th century English villein. But this kind of setup isn’t a given. In varied historical circumstances, it’s possible to distinguish a category of substantially independent small-scale farmers from more dependent categories of client or unfree (peasant/villein/serf) cultivators.

What circumstances? I’d suggest essentially only two. The first is situations of relative geographic isolation from the remit of the state – dwellers of mountains or forests, or occupants of colonial frontiers depopulated by disease or genocidal violence. The second, and for my purposes more interesting, case is when the semi-independence of the cultivator gains explicit recognition by the state and is incorporated into its political culture. Sometimes this arises through the military defeat of state forces by peasant militias – a rare occurrence historically, and one usually associated with a degree of geographical isolation as per the first circumstance. But it can also arise in situations where the state transcends the predatory warrior-aristocracy mode and constitutes itself to some degree in a more mutualistic relationship as part-benefactor of the cultivating classes. There are various examples of this, the most important surely being much of China through much of its imperial and arguably indeed its communist history.

In terms of the varna categories, the peasant as low-ranking, dependent cultivator corresponds with the shudra status – the servant, the client, the inferiorised recipient of the gift. The independent small-scale farmer corresponds with the vaishya status – the non-dependent, ascetic and thrifty yeoman who takes no gifts. If a possible future post-capitalist, low-energy agrarian society were to replicate the status categories of past agrarian societies – which seems to me quite likely, but not foreordained – then the agrarian style that most appeals to me is the vaishya one. It has the added benefit of elaborating status and a secure sense of self around not buying or consuming things excessively, which would be a useful attribute in a low energy society where there was less stuff to buy in any case. In fact, I’d venture to say that a little bit of vaishya sensibility mightn’t go amiss in contemporary capitalist society to help usher us towards something a bit more sustainable – but I’ll say more about that in my next post.

Notes

  1. Marriott, M. 1976. Hindu transactions: diversity without dualism. In Kapferer, B. (Ed) Transaction and Meaning. Philadelphia; Milner, M. 1994. Status and Sacredness. New York.

Florence, Texas

First, a quick bit of housekeeping. I think my RSS feed has stopped working, but I want to check with anyone who might subscribe to this blog by that route. If you’d be so good as to send me a message via the Contact Form to that effect I’d be grateful – you could just put a message in the subject line saying ‘Feed working’ or ‘Feed not working’. Many thanks. Alternative ways of keeping updated about the blog are via Facebook or by following me on Twitter. What a virtual world I live in. It’ll all end in tears – you read it here first. But in the meantime, I’m about to establish yet another way of keeping up with Small Farm Future in the form of a monthly digest of blogs and other publications from the Smajian stable. If you want to be sure of keeping abreast of the Small Farm Future world, drop me a line via the Contact Form and I’ll put you on the list.

Right, now down to business. I’d like to raise a standard in this post for two doctrines that I think speak to our troubled times. I’ve discussed them both before, but it occurs to me that perhaps I haven’t brought them together systematically enough or thought about them conjointly with enough clarity. This is a preliminary effort to do so, which as it happens also bears on some of the debates emerging out of a few of my recent posts. The doctrines I have in mind are civic republicanism (that’s the Florence part of my title) and agrarian populism (the Texas part). Let me explain…

It’s a commonplace of anti-establishment politics nowadays to oppose globalisation and neoliberalism – and even to oppose ‘liberalism’ without the ‘neo’, as in critiques of the machinations of the much-derided ‘liberal elites’. I’m pretty much signed up to this agenda, but I’m not signed up to invoking in place of global neoliberalism some kind of communitarian localist alternative that’s assumed to be a superior pre-political ‘natural’ community – clan, tribe, nation, ethnic group, ‘the local community’ and so on. This is for three reasons.

First, such identities usually turn out to be much less ‘natural’ than their proponents like to claim. They rarely reach back to some pre-political, essential or unproblematic claim on people’s emotions and loyalties. Instead they emerge from other – usually quite recent – processes of political claim-making. As Immanuel Wallerstein put it “first the boundaries, then the passions”.

Second, these identity claims can be dangerously exclusive, not only towards the claims made by other peoples outside the group, but also towards alternative claims made by people within it – I get an inkling of this when I see people who argue for greater parliamentary oversight of Britain’s farcical Brexit negotiations denounced as “enemies of the people”. While the existing global neoliberal order is dangerously exclusive too, I don’t see the virtue in exchanging one kind of dangerous exclusivity for another.

Third, while the manufactured contemporary neo/liberal political community is certainly problematic, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to give up on the notion of any kind of manufactured political community. Indeed, I’d argue that all political communities have to be manufactured, and the sooner we give up the notion of ‘natural’, pre-political communities and their virtues the better. The ‘recovering environmentalist’ Paul Kingsnorth pushes a bald dichotomy between ‘globalism’ on the one hand and what he calls “people’s deep, old attachment to tribe, place and identity” on the other. Not so fast, sir. Can there not be a constructed, political, deliberative kind of particularistic moral community that we don’t just assume into existence on the basis of its ‘depth’ or ‘antiquity’?

Enter civic republicanism. It’s a political tradition with roots in the classical world that was given its modern shape by the much-maligned Niccolò Machiavelli of Florence (hence the ‘Florence’ of my title) and arguably last had real political traction during the early years of the US republic in the thought of people like Thomas Jefferson. It lost politically to the ‘modern’ doctrines of liberalism and socialism, but now that those doctrines seem to have run their course, bequeathing the world numerous problems in their wake, civic republicanism has enjoyed a mini-revival, albeit so far mostly just in the writing of political philosophers rather than in much real-world politics.

A thumbnail definition of civic republicanism would be that it’s a form of politics founded on interdependent, individual citizens, who form a political community by deliberating and forging common goods or ‘values’ as the basis of living politically together. In this respect, it’s different from,

(a) libertarianism, which is focused on individual rights, not common goods

(b) liberalism, which is focused on defining political practice not political outcomes

(c) socialism, which focuses on class-based restitution of inequality (and ideology)

(d) communitarianism, which (like Kingsnorth) focuses on a ‘natural’, pre-political basis for the polity

I think all of these traditions have something to commend them (communitarianism is the one that impresses me the least), but a version of civic republicanism seems to me best fitted to creating viable post-global, post-capitalist, ecologically-sustainable societies.

I’ll try to lay out in more detail what such a version might look like in a future post. I guess for now I’d just say that I share the high value placed by liberalism and libertarianism on individual rights and freedom (contrast it with arbitrary legal process and a coercive political economy), but I don’t think those principles always supervene over common goods (eg. the freedom to erode away your farm soil in pursuit of short-term profit). And I share with socialism an understanding of the corrosive nature of unchecked private wealth which often has a class structuring, but without the confidence of socialism that class rather than citizenship can act as the motor of restitution, or that equality rather than justice represents a preferred end-state. I also share with parts of the socialist tradition the idea that values are shaped collectively and systematically – that is to say that we’re shaped by ideology. But I’m not sure that there’s such a thing as ‘scientific socialism’ which escapes ideological blinkers.

In a recent post I invoked libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s ‘framework for utopias’ as a way of thinking about a sustainable post-capitalist future, to a mixed reception. I suppose I was unconsciously motivated by a civic republican impulse to suggest that if you take individual rights seriously, you can’t have untrammelled freedom unless you make the implausible assumption that individual freedom inevitably promotes collective freedom, ie. common goods or agreed common values (much of the ‘New Optimist’ school of thought – Steven Pinker, the ecomodernists etc. – seems to me like so many attempts to shore up this assumption…implausibly.) Since we can’t all choose our ideal utopia and go to live there, I think Nozick’s framework pushes us towards a civic republican need to determine common goods deliberatively. With hindsight, I think some of the ensuing discussion (including my own) about individualism, independence and collectivism under that post would have benefitted from a civic republican lens, and a sharper focus on ideology.

One of the problems with civic republicanism is that it’s hard to create and maintain a community of citizens in the face of other political forms. The present global capitalist order, undergirded by libertarianism/liberalism, generates vast wealth for the few which is partly coopted (increasingly badly) by states and used to buy off enough of the many to keep the lid on the system. Socialist alternatives have typically involved claims originating among the many for a bigger piece of the pie, usually based on well-founded class ressentiment and often accompanied by a utopian belief that this class project will somehow result in universal benefit for all. As the class basis for the socialisms of the 19th and 20th centuries has frayed, many contemporary socialisms seem to have narrowed into a kind of cargo cult version of capitalism, of relations over essences, until we reach the final materialist essence of the ‘fully automated luxury communism’ variety, in its more sophisticated (Kate Raworth, Paul Mason, Nick Srnicek) or less sophisticated (Leigh Phillips) forms. Historically, civic republicanism has often been the preserve of small-scale, tightly-organised and quite militaristic societies, defending their common goods from the barbarians at the gate. I fear that it may operate like that in the future too, against any number of capitalist, socialist or nativist ‘barbarians’, but one can always hope.

I’ve recently come across an excellent essay by Eric Freyfogle, a sympathetic critique of Wendell Berry’s thought which, among other things, emphasises his debt to and his divergences from civic republicanism. One of Freyfogle’s points, which bears on my recent post about personal behaviour and ecological damage, is that Berry strongly emphasises individual morality and individual culpability in the aggregate for our contemporary ecological bads. For Freyfogle, Berry’s approach “largely blames the individual for problems that are far bigger than the individual. It increases the level of guilt in a way that can detract attention from the larger failures of collective responsibility”.

Freyfogle goes on to make the argument that as a citizen I might support government action that penalises or disincentivises profligate fossil-fuel use, while as an individual I might continue to avail myself of the opportunities afforded by cheap fossil fuels – a situation in which I think many of us, most certainly me, find ourselves today. A typical response is to think that our individual behaviour reveals our ‘true’ character, revealing our citizenship activism as mere hypocrisy. Certainly this seems to be Berry’s view. Freyfogle demurs from it, on the grounds that it overemphasises the importance of individual choices made in isolation as both the true mirror of our character and the most significant domain for political change. As I suggested in my ‘Be the change’ post, and others suggested in the discussion, it may be a good idea to de-emphasise this religious dimension of ecological action as personal morality and to place more emphasis on our actions as interdependent political citizens in defining common goods. Civic republicanism offers one means of doing so.

Shifting focus somewhat now, I’ve long argued for a version of agrarian populism or left agrarian populism as a key to future sustainable societies. An important intellectual ancestor in this respect is Alexander Chayanov, a Russian economist of peasant farming who was murdered in Stalin’s gulag and whose ideas keep getting murdered by later generations of Marxists. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg’s Peasants and the Art of Farming: A Chayanovian Manifesto is a brilliant (if unfortunately rather turgidly written) reconstruction of Chayanov’s thought for the present age – other writers like James Scott, Paul Richards and Eric Wolf have also freshened up Chayanovian perspectives in more recent times. There have also been numerous agrarian populist political movements around the world, probably the best known in ‘western’/Anglo-US consciousness being the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party that briefly rose to prominence in the late 19th century USA out of its Texan heartlands (hence the ‘Texas’ of my title).

I’ve spent time pondering whether these older agrarian populist movements have much to teach us today about a politics for modern times. The answer proffered by US historians has varied according to intellectual fashion and the prevailing political winds – from Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘No’ (1890s) to John D. Hicks ‘Yes’ (1930s) to Richard Hofstadter’s ‘No’ (1950s) to Lawrence Goodwyn’s ‘Yes’ (1970s) to Charles Postel’s ‘Not much’ (2000s). I feel inclined to side with Postel…but also with Ploeg. I think we need to recuperate the economics of the family or peasant farm, and the Chayanovian tradition can help us with that. But to achieve it politically, I think past agrarian populist movements are of limited use. For Postel, US agrarian populism was less far removed than is often supposed from the liberal politics that supplanted it, whereas for Freyfogle “the Populists rose and fell because their moral dreams lacked any means of accomplishment”. Civic republicanism offers a stronger political frame to hang an agrarian populist economics from, but I think is also caught on the horns of that dilemma.

Meanwhile, populism has now taken on a very different cast in western politics with the election of Donald Trump, the UK’s Brexit vote and the rise of far-right populist parties across Europe. These events have prompted many anguished liberal disavowals of the ‘populist threat’ recently, such as in books by Yascha Mount and William Galston that are skewered by Thomas Frank in an interesting recent review. For Frank – as for many other commentators, like John Michael Greer – the rise of US populism stems from the abandonment of ordinary working people by the political class, and particularly by ‘the left’ and the Democratic Party. “Reduced to its essentials” says Frank “populism is America’s way of expressing class antagonism….Anyone can be the voice of those who work, and when one party renounces its claim the other can easily pick it up”. A problem he diagnoses in much current liberal antipathy to contemporary populism is complete ignorance of past populist traditions and why they arose.

A great advantage of Frank over someone like Greer is that he isn’t taken in by Trump’s populist posturing:

“The right name for Trump’s politics is “demagoguery” or “pseudo-populism”. By lumping him together with the genuine reform tradition of populism, we do that tradition a violent disservice.”

I’d go so far as to say that we do that tradition a disservice even by calling Trump a pseudo-populist. Sure, he borrows a few scraps of rhetoric from the populist rulebook like economic protectionism, but with none of the accompanying vision and intent. I suppose there is an identifiable right-wing populism which he recycles in his rhetoric – anti-immigrant, anti-liberal, anti-intellectual, nationalist/nativist, and rhetorically supportive of working people, or at least working men. It’s a shame that it goes by the same name as the reformist tradition Frank identifies, because the two have little in common.

In the UK, the Brexit campaign lacked even Trump’s thin veneer of populist reformism. It was sustained largely by elixirs of neoliberalism and haughty isolationism. I’ll confess that my reaction here at Small Farm Future to the Brexit and Trump results perhaps borrowed a little from the horrified liberal zeitgeist. It invited accusations that I wasn’t a proper populist, which suits me fine because I doubt I’m a ‘proper’ anything. But Frank’s intervention encourages me to think that in part it was the reaction of a horrified populist seeing the tradition hijacked – and watching commentators like Greer turn into apologists for the hijacking.

There’s also perhaps some transatlantic confusion here. As far as I’m able to discern from my distant vantage point, it does seem that in the US many conservatives have finally decided that they don’t much like capitalism and globalisation. Good for them. What I think they can’t then do is pull a Greer and pin all the evils of capitalism, the market and globalisation on the left/Democrats as if the right/Republicans are unsullied by the same associations. But this whole political iteration doesn’t work in the UK where the right/Conservatives remain wedded to neoliberalism, albeit with a few nationalistic twists, while the left/Labour attempts to extricate itself from Blairite neoliberal globalism and articulate a social democratic vision grounded in national sovereignty. Both parties are mired in what strike me as irresolvable contradictions, though it seems to me that Labour has more potential to emerge out of them with something akin to US-style reformist-populism.

If and when it does, I think it’ll be plunged immediately into the kind of contradictions faced by civic republicanism – how to create an engaged citizenry, how to defend the republic from disintegrative alternative forces, how to define agreement around common goods. But at least these are problems worth wrestling with. By contrast, how to make America great again is not a problem worth wrestling with.

For my part, I think I need to wrestle some more with the overlaps and contradictions between the various traditions I’ve identified here as a possible base for sustainable future societies: civic republicanism, agrarian populism, the individual rights focus of libertarianism and probably the justice and ideology focus of leftism, broadly conceived. I’d also like to acknowledge the importance, noted by Kingsnorth, of attachment to place, but without making it the basis of competitive or exclusionary political identity. So for me the siren songs of nationalism, nativism, communitarianism and Trumpian demagoguery, as well as neoliberalism, are all part of the problems that must be overcome.

Talkin’ bout a revolution: a response to the Breakthrough Institute

The Breakthrough Institute have published a response to my critical commentary on a recent post of theirs. Here I continue the debate, because I think it might clarify some worthwhile issues. I’d like to thank Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Kenton De Kirby (henceforth B&D) for engaging constructively with me – a welcome improvement on what’s come my way from some previous Breakthrough folk.

Broadly, the issue between us is our different visions of agrarian, and therefore human, futures. I stress more people working on more small farms and a degree of deurbanisation, they stress increases in farm scale, a continued agrarian-urban transition out of agriculture and an emphasis on yield increase. On some points, I’d suggest our differences are not as great as B&D suppose: for example, I’m not necessarily for small farms and against yield increases or the use of synthetic fertiliser in all eventualities. But we’ll come to that.

I’m going to structure my response under three headings: change, ‘development’ and wealth.

Change

B&D suggest that my vision involves revolutionary change that would have to reverse robust global trends, and therefore isn’t feasible. My first response to that is to ask what makes a trend ‘robust’ and irreversible. Suppose, for example, that global trade rulings force countries with large populations of poor farmers to open their markets to rich-country agricultural commodities and to abandon food price controls and social welfare provision. We’d surely expect life to get tougher for the poor farmers and for them to seek other sources of income in place of or in addition to their dwindling farm income. Well, that’s pretty much what’s happened over recent decades. You could say that it’s a ‘robust trend’. But it’s a robust trend that’s resulted from policy decisions – and other policy decisions are possible.

There are other trends much more robust than the ones I’m lobbying to reverse that attract less fatalism than B&D apply to agrarian transitions. For example, the sexual harassment of women by men has a long historical pedigree, but nobody seems to be arguing against the #MeToo movement on the grounds that predatory male sexuality is a ‘robust trend’. To invoke a trend as an argument against a policy proposal risks turning an ‘is’ into an ‘ought’. Doubtless it could be argued that #MeToo has a greater chance of reversing male sexual aggression than a neo-peasant movement has of reversing current global agrarian and economic trends. It would be interesting to see such an argument laid out, because I think it could be quite revealing of where the obstacles lie. Meanwhile, I’d say ‘low chance of success’ is not the same as ‘bad idea’.

I want to push further at that last point. The word ‘revolutionary’ has numerous connotations, not all of which I embrace, but I’m happy to accept that my stance involves a commitment to ‘revolutionary’ change in some sense of the term. Our present epoch is revolutionary through and through, so I’m not sure describing a proposed change as ‘revolutionary’ really counts against it. Proponents of mainstream agriculture happily talk about the ‘green revolution’, while other analysts describe the early 20th century mechanisation of farming in the wealthy countries as ‘the second agricultural revolution of modern times’1. The 20th century was garlanded with political revolutions, many of them with small-scale farmers at their heart. But the capitalist global economy has been the most revolutionary force of all. It’s constantly made and remade the world with a success that I think stems less from the over-emphasised fact that it’s what everyone wants, as B&D imply, than from the fact that its unparalleled powers of wealth creation have been locked in by mutually-dependent political and business elites, with limited payback to the majority of the world’s people.

The truth is that any plausible vision for a prosperous and sustainable future from here on will have to be revolutionary. For example, let’s review the implications of B&D’s solid trend towards agricultural transition and their business-as-usual approach to the global economy in its present form. Assuming current global economic growth of 2.5% per annum (and anything less over a prolonged period would surely imply economic crisis within current economic parameters), in fifty years’ time the global economy will have to be producing additional economic activity well over double the entire present global output. It will have to do so after reducing fossil energy use pretty much to zero (currently about 80% of global energy use is fossil fuel based) in order to stave off drastic climate change. And if it’s going to deliver increased prosperity for the half of the humanity who currently live off about US$5 a day or less, it’ll have to do a vastly better redistributive job than it’s done over the last 20 years, when the lowest-earning half of the world’s people only received around 10% of the income increase over the period2. That all sounds pretty revolutionary to me.

‘Development’ and the global peasant-family farm

B&D impute to me the belief that small-scale farming has great inherent value, but that’s not really true. I don’t, for the most part, argue for small-scale farming as a valuable end in itself. I argue for it largely because it seems to me the most feasible way of delivering sustainable prosperity (or ‘development’) to the world’s people in the future. In saying that, I agree with B&D that my vision is very revolutionary and not very feasible. However, I think it’s less revolutionary and more feasible than theirs.

The idea of a future based on peasant farming may seem far-fetched, but I want to offer a brief sketch to suggest why it could be less far-fetched than it may seem at first. Consider two farms. One comprises an acre or so, and is farmed by a poor family in a poor country who use it to grow mostly subsistence crops. The other comprises several hundred acres, and is farmed by a family who are not poor by global standards and who live in a rich country, using numerous high-tech inputs like tractors to grow mostly commodity crops. The two farms look very different. The first might be described as a ‘peasant’ farm, whereas the second most likely wouldn’t be. But they both have the same ‘peasant-like’ structure vis-à-vis the wider economy. They both use mostly family labour, which is rewarded not by an hourly wage but by a share of the farm’s output. And they both involve capital investments (buildings, land, livestock, equipment and human knowledge) which isn’t valued in terms of the opportunity cost of the returns to its annual investment, but in terms of its contribution to the long-term productivity of the farm, including its potential productivity after the death of its present incumbents and on into the future incumbency of their descendants.

Contrast that with the simpler economics of a fully capitalist farm. Labour and capital are just costs on the debit side of the equation. Profit is realised output less costs, year by year. If costs exceed profit, or even if they don’t but the difference imposes sufficient opportunity costs to capital investment then the farm soon closes and the released capital is invested elsewhere. That’s not the case with the peasant or the family farm in the same situation. Its circumstances are dire, but it’s not looking to maximise returns on immediate investment, so the chances are it’ll survive.

At root, I think it will prove more feasible to create a prosperous and sustainable future by adopting policies that make life easier for existing peasant and family farmers of this sort than by adopting policies that make life harder for them, and easier for capitalist farmers. This is for numerous reasons that I won’t go into here – though I have done over the years on this blog, and am happy to discuss in more detail should anyone wish…some of the reasons in any case are probably quite obvious just from my brief description. In broadest outline, I think an agrarian future based on support for these kinds of farms will take a lot of damaging hot capital out of the global economy, do a better job of reproducing the biophysical means for continued human flourishing and do a better job, too, of spreading fairly such prosperity as can be sustainably created. However, supporting both such kinds of farms would involve ensuring that the second type doesn’t undermine the first.

Commenting on my ideas, B&D state that “with less international agricultural trade, countries would have to either convert more land to farming to make up for the drop in food, or people would have to deal with higher prices, change their food consumption, or go hungry more often.” That may be so if all I was suggesting was limiting international food trade alone, but I’m arguing for something rather more ‘revolutionary’ than that – broadly, for an agrarian economy that widens opportunities to take up small-scale farming and narrows opportunities to gain economic rent from land.

Wealth and the transition out of agriculture

The revolution that B&D prefer is another iteration of the one that today’s rich countries passed through, which they summarise as follows:

“Historically, the agrarian transition of people moving from rural farming communities to urban centers has greatly improved people’s lives. As urbanization occurs, incomes rise, access to healthcare increases, and population growth slows, among other beneficial changes in social outcomes.”

All that has been true – well, kind of eventually true – for the citizens of some countries, albeit usually at the expense of people elsewhere. But I think there’s a failure of imagination here to suppose that what worked for, say, Britain in the 19th century will inevitably work for, say, Niger in the 21st…and also to suppose that such transitions mark a once and for all arrival at prosperity. Prosperity increase is not exactly a zero-sum game, but it more closely approximates to it in a world dedicated to maximising net present value through frictionless financial movement. The idea that, in such a world, Niger will achieve prosperity by urbanising like Britain did 200 years ago neglects the pyramid-scheme resemblances of the present global economy: the benefits of agrarian transition accrue largely to those who undertake it first. Or perhaps, over time, to those who undertake it best. So to my mind, on that note the lesson of China’s current transition (one that was achieved in some measure by investing in peasant agriculture) is not that other parts of the world should try to follow its example, but that they should try to build as much economic resilience as possible out of local resources.

Contrary to B&D’s global agrarian transition, then, I’d argue that putting one’s trust in an economic model explicitly geared to maximising short-run fiscal returns on investment, with other benefits essentially epiphenomenal, is a very high risk way of seeking to improve people’s lives globally today. And not a very effective one either: relative to the generation of wealth, it hasn’t so far been conspicuously successful at distributing it.

B&D imply that people inherently prefer urban over rural life, and that various other aspects of the global farmscape result from the free exercise of choice. I’d suggest instead that people inherently prefer prosperity, and will seek it where they can find it – and that the shape of the global farmscape results mostly from the free exercise of choice by the rich, not by the poor. Whatever the case, despite all the pressures to shed labour from agriculture there are still more than 1.2 billion farmers in the world at a minimum estimate – over 16% of the global population. Supporting their desire for prosperity while keeping them in farming seems to me a wiser overall strategy than willing them into cities and assuming that short-run capital intensive farming will more successfully fill the vacuum they leave.

A couple of final points on yield. Within the parameters of the non-capitalist family farm (whether rich or poor) described above, in some circumstances it may be an excellent idea to increase per hectare yields through any number of different means, and I have no particular problem with that. I do have a problem, though, with the idea that improving per hectare yields is a fundamental desideratum for agriculture globally, regardless of any other considerations. And on the matter of yield improvement, I mentioned above the ‘second agricultural revolution of modern times’. The first one occurred in the 18th century in countries like Britain, arguably as much or more through the spread of ideas about better ways to farm than through increased energy or other high-tech inputs – what today we might call an ‘agroecological revolution’. It may be wise to devote more thought to innovations of that sort than to the idea that greater yields only arise as increased returns to land input by means of other costly inputs. I’m all for breakthroughs, but we often have too impoverished a notion of what technological ‘breakthroughs’ look like, let alone breakthroughs in a more general sense.

Notes

  1. M. Mazoyer and L. Roudart. 2006. A History of World Agriculture. Earthscan.
  2. B. Milanovic. 2016. Global Inequality. Harvard UP.

The supersedure state

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

oOo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Campesino a campesino: a trip to Nicaragua

As I’ve mentioned, I recently visited Nicaragua as part of a research project on ‘Transitions to agro-ecological food systems’ that I’ve been involved with, conducted by the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. The research involved working with agro-ecological farmers in the UK, Senegal and Nicaragua, and the trip brought together some of the farmers and researchers from each country. In this post, I thought I’d offer a few informal reflections on the research, and the Nicaragua trip.

In each country, the researchers took a kind of ‘citizen’s jury’ approach to the project, getting the farmers to map their experiences of the food system and then to define specific issues that they wanted to research further in order to ease the desired transition to an agro-ecological food system, followed by a workshop with ‘change agents’ – people with some capacity to help realise these changes. At the Nicaragua meeting, we came together and discussed the similarities and differences between the three countries in the focus of our deliberations and the ways forward. Here are some of the issues that came up:

Seeds: maintaining local farmer control of seed production and markets (and fighting the encroachment of transgenic crops) was a major theme both in Nicaragua and Senegal, but wasn’t much discussed in the UK. There certainly are concerns around seeds in the UK – quite similar ones to the concerns in the other two countries – but few farmers or growers here take responsibility any longer for their own seed production. There are those who argue that this is a good thing – plant breeding is a highly specialist business, and farmers benefit from leaving it to the experts and sticking to their own skill set. One problem here is that what suits the ‘business’ of plant breeding doesn’t necessarily suit the business of being a local agroecological farmer. There’s much to be said for farmers and plant breeders working in concert, but the structure of the agricultural industry often puts them at loggerheads. On that note, I enjoyed meeting actual farmers from relatively low income countries who told me point blank that they wanted to retain control over local seed production and didn’t want GM crops. No doubt there are other shades of opinion in their countries, but I’ve been told more than once by other privileged westerners/northerners that GM crops are an unquestionable boon to the world’s poorer places and that my scepticism about them merely indicates my white, western/northern privilege (or, in the words of one especially apoplectic ecomodernist, that my ideology was akin to stealing wheelchairs from Bangladeshi children), so it’s good to know that my views are shared by others less white and geopolitically privileged than me. In truth, I already knew it – any claim that a particular kind of plant-breeding technology must be inherently pro-poor is obviously bogus. Still, you can’t beat hearing a story straight from the root, rather than one filtered through layers of researcherly foliage.

An additional problem with giving up seed-saving is that it’s another small step on the journey that alienates farmers from the wide suite of skills they need to fully inhabit the land. I for one am a little envious of other countries who haven’t yet taken that step.

Traditional cuisine: finding ways to encourage people to eat traditional, locally-grown foods rather than processed foods heavy in global commodity crops was a theme in all three countries – though again it emerged least strongly in the UK. Teaching cookery skills and sponsoring local restaurants were avenues that were being explored. In the UK, one project has involved doctors prescribing fresh vegetables for low income patients on poor diets, with local authorities paying small-scale local producers to provide the food – a use of public money with a reportedly good social return on investment.

Markets: ‘the market’ is one of those words that conflates things which ought to be separated. In each of the three countries, albeit in different ways, the farmers wanted to strengthen ‘the market’ in the sense of local venues where buyers and sellers come together physically for the exchange of things they need. In order to do this, we agreed that we needed less of ‘the market’ in the sense of a non-physical, globalised abstraction in which a minority of people launch money in order to receive more of it in return. Though, saying that, there can also be problems with local markets – especially when their control falls into the hands of a few. The best solution is for the majority of people to have access to land, the ultimate source of the values able to come to market… Perhaps I should qualify that statement by way of a quotation from IDS big cheese Ian Scoones, whose interesting if rather turgidly academic book Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development: Agrarian Change & Peasant Studies I’m reading at the moment:

“The real world is of course more complex than the usual default policy debate constructed around a set of simple dichotomies – large versus small, external versus local, food production versus cash crops, backward versus modern” (p.59)

Indeed, a case can be made along these lines for allowing markets to be complemented by ‘the market’, but as Scoones himself points out ‘the market’ is supported by a “strong coalition of investors, private sector agribusiness players, national governments and local elites” whose “expert-accredited narrative” (ibid.) has much more influence over economic reality than the food sovereignty agenda we were articulating in Nicaragua. Therefore I’m happy to line up with my fellows in the marketing discussion group at the meeting (pictured) and press for the food sovereignty agenda. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world…

Land: access to land for agro-ecological farming was a big issue in the UK, less of a concern in other countries. I’ve probably harped on about it often enough on this blog to keep it brief here. The UK farmers put some emphasis on the role of the planning system in relation to private land purchases, because this is an easy hit for improving the situation without having to introduce any major political or economic changes. Issues around farm tenancies and publicly owned farmland were also highlighted in the UK. In Nicaragua, the government programme that provides women with a plot of land sufficient for personal needs, together with some household livestock, excited some interest…particularly among a few of the women from the other countries who suddenly expressed a hitherto latent enthusiasm for emigrating to Nicaragua. Which brings us to…

Female empowerment: I heard some conflicting views about gender oppression (and thence the need for the aforementioned programme) in Nicaragua. While we were travelling around the country I saw a few placards in communities stating “Aquí respetamos a las mujeres”, which kind of implies that maybe there are folks allí que no respetan a las mujeres. Not that the UK is innocent of gender oppression. Certainly, gender issues loom large in what I’ll tentatively term “sustainable development”. Which reminds me…I need to round off my ‘return of the peasant’ blog cycle with a look at gender soon.

Commodification & self-reliance: another issue in relation to making markets more functional is reducing their levels of commodification – ‘commodities’ in the sense of traded objects entirely torn from their local contexts of production. In Senegal, this manifests in peanut farming, which is environmentally destructive and makes growers dependent on global commodity prices. The common refrain is that such commodity crops are the route to wealth which, through specialisation and the magic of ‘the market’, enables farmers to buy themselves out of the kind of miserable subsistence existence associated with mixed cropping of local food crops, where they can barely scratch a living from the unforgiving earth. Each of the three countries had their own local manifestations of this ideology, and each country’s farmers also had distinctive counter-narratives insisting that it ain’t necessarily so.

Subsidies: I mentioned the attraction to female farmers of moving to Nicaragua, but some of the farmers from the other countries kinda liked the sound of moving to the UK to harvest some of the EU farm subsidies they’d heard about. So we from the UK had to explain the realities of the system: in a few years of stressy bureaucratic wrangling, I managed to wrest no more than a thousand quid or so out of HM’s government, before it decided to stop small-scale farmers from claiming altogether. Meanwhile, and talking of HM, the queen netted a cool half a million a year from the scheme. Oh well, I guess she needs it more than me. But, more important than the inequities between small and large-scale landowners farmers in affluent countries is the way that US and EU subsidies punish farmers in less affluent countries – such as the anti-competitive $1 billion or so going to US peanut farmers, to pick an aforementioned crop. So, to get a little technical, here’s a brief primer on the clean economic logic of free markets: the greatest net benefit results when countries remove protectionist measures and compete on equal terms in liberalised global markets, except when the most powerful countries decide not to.

There are also, of course, the numerous implicit subsidies associated with fossil fuel use and other nasty economic externalities – a general experience common to all three countries, albeit with some differences of detail.

Farmer networks and change agents: there are more small-scale and agroecological farmers in Nicaragua and Senegal than the UK, with richer interactions between them and the organs of government, and more powerful small-farmer organisations such as (talking of peasants, as we were under my last post) Nicaragua’s Programa campesino a campesino. In the UK, I think it would be fair to say that – despite the researchers’ best efforts – we struggled to get any ‘change agents’ to talk to us who had significant power to change the status quo. This seemed to be less true of Nicaragua and Senegal, though that’s not to say that the life of the small-scale agroecological farmer in those countries is all plain sailing. Perhaps one of the reasons it was hard to engage policymakers in the UK is that they’re all so busy trying to work out what the hell is going to happen to UK farming after Brexit. And here it’s fascinating to note that Michael Gove, arch Brextremist and now head honcho at DEFRA, is giving the keynote speech at the forthcoming Oxford Real Farming Conference – unless he accidentally booked himself into the wrong conference. I’ll be reporting back with interest on what he has to say.

At the end of the trip we paid a visit to the 10 acre holding of one of the Nicaraguan participants, where I took this picture of citrus fruits growing under the shade of a coconut palm, hard by the cassava, yams and coffee bushes. Here, where the sun shines and the rain falls copiously, my strictures against perennial staple cropping are no longer operative. Perhaps I’ll see if I can persuade La Brassicata to move there and get herself on the waiting list for a holding, where I can skivvy for her in the tropical warmth. Oh, alas, ‘tis but a dream – so now I must leave you to schlep out into the snow and empty our compost toilet.

But not without first offering my thanks to Elise Wach, Santi Ripoll, Clare Ferguson and Jorge Irán Vásquez Zeledón for their work on the project and the trip, and to everyone else involved in it for making is so interesting.

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

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

oOo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

oOo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

oOo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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