Have yourself a merry little agrarian populist Christmas

I’ll come to the seasonal song of my title in a moment, but let’s begin with another one, courtesy of John Lennon – “So this is Christmas, and what have you done…?”

Well, in 2020 I published a book, wrote 34 blog posts, did my bit to help nurture our little community of 4.5 households on our site through another year, spoke as widely as I could about the need to rethink the global political economy, sat on committees dedicated to widening access to farmland, managed to dodge Covid-19 (while remembering those who didn’t), donated to charity and even managed to grow a little food and fibre on our site – but the truth is that it wasn’t anywhere near enough in the face of the crises we face, and I played pretty much the same role as everyone else in the wealthy countries in overburdening the Earth’s limited capacities. So next year I will have to try harder.

One way I’ll try harder is by taking a few more small steps to increase my food and fibre self-reliance. But first I’m going to take some downtime over Christmas. The other households on our site are decamping to visit their families, and I’ll be here cooking, eating and making merry with mine. I’ll eat food that we grew here on the farm, and I’ll warm myself by the woodstove burning logs from trees that I planted, felled, cut, split and stacked myself. And perhaps I’ll have a glass or two of the beech noyau I made this year, using leaves from trees I planted myself (OK, so the sugar and gin were imported – small steps, remember…)

Family. Autonomy. The simple pleasures of home and farm. It’s my honouring of such ‘petty bourgeois’ things that prompted the only largely negative review of my book that I’ve seen so far, by the Marxist critics I mentioned a couple of posts back. The review badly mischaracterized many of my arguments, but on the upside the petty bourgeois jibe sent me back to the inestimable James Scott, who’s always worth a read. In his essay “Two cheers for the petty bourgeoisie”, Scott writes:

“The petite bourgeoisie and small property in general represent a precious zone of autonomy and freedom in state systems increasingly dominated by public and private bureaucracies …. the desire for autonomy, for control over the working day and the sense of freedom and self-respect such control provides is a vastly underestimated social aspiration for much of the world’s population”1

…and, I’d add, also a vastly underestimated basis for trying to build a tolerable future for ourselves in the face of climate change, resource constraint and political decay.

I’m not really convinced that the concept of the petty bourgeoisie has much traction in analyzing the political challenges and conflicts now facing us. Still, James Scott suggests that the characteristics of unheroic autonomy, freedom and mutuality often attached to notions of the petty bourgeoisie are fundamentally anarchist sensibilities – and on that basis I’m prepared to predict that if the challenges of our times are met successfully through class revolutions of any kind in the future, they’ll most likely be in the form of ‘petty bourgeois’ anarchist revolutions embarrassing to the rigidities of orthodox Marxist class analysis.

Anyway, the review at least provides a useful foil for a few arguments that I aim to unfurl in blog posts next year. One of them concerns the dangers of domination in human relationships of all kinds, not just in families, which was brought home to me rather ironically while my critics were lambasting me with wild allegations about my supposed enthusiasm for the ‘patriarchal family’, just as various non-kin collectivities on my personal radar were aflame with troublesome power dynamics. My critics’ special antipathy to family relationships also rather reminds me of words attributed to the man whose birth I shall shortly be celebrating, alongside my family: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14: 26). Next year, I hope to trace this curious affinity between currents of both Marxism and Christianity and suggest some ways in which it might be wise to try to reconfigure them. The trick is in the tension – but not the dialectic! – between the local and the non-local, the public and the private, the self-critical and the self-honouring.

Another argumentative foil is in trying to think through the field of politics in a future world of supposedly ‘petty bourgeois’ smallholders. This is the field of agrarian populism, where both the greatest challenges and the greatest opportunities lie in the fact that so few of ‘the people’ in so many countries today are agrarians. How to reckon with that is a major conundrum – but not one that 19th century-style class analysis is equipped to grasp.

Anyway, we’ll come on to all this next year, I hope. In the meantime, I’m going to count my blessings – the wonderful food, farm and family I have, the other wonderful people and non-human organisms I share the farm with, the wonderful wider communities I’m a part of (including the online ones), and the wonderful reception that my book has (mostly) got. So let me raise a glass to you in this holiday season, wherever you are and whichever kin, non-kin or other beings you’re keeping company with, to wish you peace and (a modest, sustainable and semi-autonomous) prosperity. Thank you for reading this blog. And if Christmas is a thing for you, I hope you’ll have yourself a merry little agrarian populist Christmas. Because next year, there’s work to do…

Notes

  1. James Scott. 2012. Two Cheers for Anarchism. Princeton University Press, p.85.

No easy answers: a response to Alex Heffron and Kai Heron

A change to my published programme, since I’m feeling the need to respond to a review of my book from an avowedly Marxist perspective by Alex Heffron and Kai Heron (henceforth H&H). Their review involves a bit of faint praise for my book, a lot of fusillades against it, and some outrageous distortions of what I actually say.

The sociologist Colin Campbell wrote “It is always interesting for an author to read reviewers’ comments, if only to discover the kind of book reviewers thought one should have written. But then it is also interesting to discover what it is that one should have consulted or discussed at length, yet in the opinion of the reviewer regrettably failed to do”. His words resonated as I read H&H’s review, but this was overlaid with a stranger feeling that in much of their review they were engaging with some other writer altogether, a dastardly fellow with an egregiously conservative agenda hidden beneath his superficial leftism. I’m pretty sure that that writer isn’t me. But perhaps H&H are channelling a doppelganger of mine from some parallel universe. I’ll call him Ejams, the mirror of my name, and we’ll meet him shortly.

First, I need to sketch some grounding assumptions of my book. In the years ahead, I think there will be climate, food, water, energy, material, ecological, political and economic crises that will upend in chaotic ways much of the institutional architecture of our present social world and see a lot of people on the move, many searching for secure farmland to make a living. If you disagree, my book won’t make much sense – but my view is becoming increasingly mainstream, not least on the political left. To mitigate the problems of this world to come, we need to be radically rethinking right now the agrarian, energetic, political and economic basis of our societies as we head into a future whose dynamics remain unknowable in detail. This isn’t easy to do. H&H criticize me for uncertainty and haziness in rethinking humanity’s entire future within one 300-page book. If I claimed certainty or a thorough blueprint I’d be a charlatan, but I hope someday they’ll write the book they think I should have written and make it a better one than mine.

H&H do, however, usefully highlight a deeper reason for my uncertainty. I’m sceptical of progressive-modernist ideologies and I don’t think they’ll be equal to the challenges of the future, or indeed survive them. Broadly, the three main currents of these ideologies are liberal capitalism (progress through private profit-seeking), conservative nationalism (progress through collective national assertion) and Marxism/socialism (progress through collective popular assertion by the working class). My view is a more tragic one: people organize to achieve progress and improvement, but in doing so they encounter insuperable dilemmas and unforeseen consequences of their actions that rarely deliver what they hoped or expected. This view, I acknowledge, leaves me searching rather lamely for sources of social renewal and justice. But I think it’s better to face this squarely, to accept that the renewal may not come as we would like, if at all, and that possibly it will come piecemeal as a poisoned chalice in the face of systemic breakdown and involve a lot of hard work on the farm and in the town hall, rather than clinging hopefully to the familiar modernist bromides of redemption through the market, or the nation, or through popular class assertion.

Although my view is tragic, it’s not nihilistic. I completely endorse the urge for improvement, and of the three progressive-modernist ideologies my sympathies slant heavily to socialism. I don’t share the progressive-modernist underpinnings, but I’d still like to reach out to many on the left who embrace them because we have much in common. I also think the more tragically-oriented peasant or agrarian populist tradition that I articulate in my book contains useful lessons for that project, but – while I’m grateful to H&H for recommending that people read the book – I suspect that many who absorb their broadside against it will conclude it’s scarcely worth the bother. Here, I’ll briefly plead the case that it might be worth the bother in relation to the three main dimensions of H&H’s critique: 1. capital, 2. class and 3. issues of gender, family and interpersonal coercion.

On capital, H&H accurately diagnose that I see the origins of capitalism largely as a product of interstate commercial competition and not so much as a product of rural class relations. My inspiration is more Immanuel Wallerstein than Robert Brenner. That is not at all the same as saying that rural class formation or class relations are unimportant, and I’ll come to that in a moment. But these commercial versus class accents do echo across many of the differences between my position and H&H’s. Frankly, I think they use their class emphasis to give themselves and their politics an easy ride, where the correct class following the correct politics is accorded privileged political agency as post-capitalist liberator. For my part, I don’t think any categories of workers or peasants can exempt themselves so easily from capitalist and state hegemony – but they do and will try, and this is a key plank to the politics in my book.

A different way of thinking about capital is as the embodied resources – which, in low energy agrarian societies, mostly means embodied human labour – in the farmed landscape. There is a lot of this embodied labour, even in apparently ‘simple’ societies, which non-farmers rarely notice. Whether capital is monetized or not, in every farming society, and in foraging societies too, a lot of nuanced attention is paid to who builds the capital, who draws from it and how this changes through time.

But H&H aren’t interested in this, and they scorn the idea that small-scale farmers might manage the complex flow of farm capital partly through commodity production or marketing while mitigating the dangers of market dependence through secure property tenure. A problem that many societies have had to wrestle with is that human collective organization easily generates a lot of capital that degrades the ecological base on which they ultimately rely. This, to say the least, is a major global problem today, and in my book I argue that a promising route for limiting capital formation is creating household-based farming oriented primarily to household needs. But even the most rudimentary household farm has to build some capital and direct its flow. H&H say nothing about how to either generate or limit such capital, and I think this fatally compromises their critique of my approach. In fact, with this omission they unwittingly open the door to the class differentiation they (and I) oppose.

Which brings us to class. One of H&H’s major charges against my book is that I fail to appreciate class differentiation in peasant societies, and they draw attention to various debates about this issue which they say I’ve neglected. In truth, I did cover some of these debates implicitly or explicitly, while trying to keep in mind that general readers of non-scholarly books are less interested in antique Marxist controversies than leftwing intellectuals might think. The most recent of the debates that H&H chastise me for ignoring flared nearly 50 years ago, and one reason I scarcely discuss them is that I’m not convinced of their centrality to the new epoch that’s upon us.

But actually – and this is something H&H completely miss – rural class differentiation and class conflict is key to my discussion in the later parts of the book. True, I don’t broadcast it with bold caps in the way that H&H would perhaps have liked me to, but I’d have thought that a reasonably attentive leftwing reading of my book would have picked up on this all the same. So, to clarify my position: IN THE FUTURE THERE WILL BE MANY SHARP CLASS CONFLICTS OVER ACCESS TO FARMLAND. I can’t foretell their outcome, but the small farm futures I write about in my book certainly won’t occur unless some of them are decided in favour of the cultivating/working classes. In my book I describe in very broad brushstrokes the circumstances in which that may just be possible (which pace H&H, won’t be ‘feudal’).

For their part, H&H want to tie future rural class conflicts to 19th century Eurasian ones and lament that I neglect the touchstone authors who described the latter: Lenin, Kautsky, Chayanov. Will the rural class conflicts of the future I anticipate in my book resemble these ones? Well, yes and no but mostly no, and I make it plain that my book is not about the peasant politics of the past (page 93). H&H make much of Lenin’s Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899). As I see it, Lenin’s analysis was excessively concerned to shoehorn relations in the Russian countryside of that time into a Marxian dualism considerably more doctrinaire than Marx’s own, but inasmuch as it genuinely engaged with Russia’s rural scene it was in a context where well established peasantries were seeking leverage within an expanding and industrializing economy under the aegis of a strengthening state. The future situations I’m anticipating in my book, on the other hand, are where newly emerging and socially pre-differentiated peasantries are seeking leverage within a shrinking and deindustrializing economy under the weakening tutelage of a disintegrating state.

Lenin’s thoughts about 19th century Russia are really of little help in this situation. Nevertheless, I agree with H&H that there is potential for rural class differentiation in the neo-peasant societies to come, which is why I devote a lot of attention in my book to the means for preventing it. So it surprises me that on this issue H&H summon my doppelganger Ejams, and suggest he’s an enthusiast for rural landlordism. Smaje, however, most certainly isn’t: I make the avoidance of Ricardian rent key to the whole rural political economy of my book. H&H build their counter case by citing the one sentence in the entire book where I’m less than wholly negative about landlordism, a sentence addressed to a specific context where in fact landlords are pressured by the class power of cultivators, and even there I hedge it with caveats. This feeds my general sense that they have combed the book looking for ammunition rather than seeking more open engagement.

For sure, we can debate the pros and cons of different methods to avoid domination in the countryside and build thriving rural societies, and this has been the stuff of agrarian politics worldwide at levels of bewildering practical complexity throughout history. But H&H cut through all that with the single anecdotal example of a farm that’s co-run on cooperative lines by one of them, reportedly with great success. I can’t comment on this particular farm, about which I know nothing, but I can comment on numerous farms, cooperatives, community gardens, small businesses, intentional communities and marriages which I’ve seen fare less well, and almost always for the same reasons: beneath the patina of cooperation, somebody was carrying a burden of unrecognized labour, or there were disagreements over use of shared resources, or there was interpersonal domination.

Anecdotes aside, there’s a vast consultable history of agrarian societies that have carefully and unromantically, though never perfectly, thrashed out workable boundaries between family, private, common and public ownership, and I talk about this in some detail in my book. Here I think H&H should engage with rather than ignore this analysis and put some cards of their own on the table. Their implicit preference for sorting out the agrarian implications of such things as death, inheritance, in- or out-migration, divorce, neighbour disputes or commons disputes simply by talking it all through ad hoc on the farm or collectively in some ill-defined state space is the perfect recipe for creating class differentiation and landlordism over time. If they really want to make the case that it’s possible to create a renewable and harmonious agrarian society long-term on this basis, they need to provide a more nuanced description of how it works in practice.

I confess that my own brief outline of a republican politics of recognition and a public sphere in my book is only another step or two up the ladder of sophistication in this regard, and maybe indeed it’s a deus ex machina as H&H charge. But if so, I think it’s a more specific and promising one than two others that they lean on heavily themselves – unconflicted class identification, and somehow just sorting it all out collectively on or off the farm. H&H object to the concept of the public sphere, but happily invoke the resolving power of ‘democracy’, which seems a pretty similar move – though the difference between them is important, and I’ll discuss it in another essay which will also engage with their objections to ‘genocidal’ political quietism. For now, I’ll just observe that H&H dismiss the republican politics of recognition and the deeply grounded traditions of agrarian organization that I discuss in my book with simplistic and misleading labels: ‘liberal’, ‘petit bourgeois’. This is not an example of the nuanced and specific historical class analysis that Marxism at its best achieves. It’s vulgar determinism and name-calling.

One reason I don’t much engage in detailed class analysis is that it’s impossible to do it prospectively for future scenarios, except in the broadest of outlines that are sketched in my book. But what interests me more than sharp rural class conflicts is what happens after the sharpness has been blunted – how do people implement the peace and deal with the conflicts and frustrations, as well as the joys, of daily agrarian life? H&H have nothing to say about this beyond the exemplary presentation of Heffron’s own farm, I suspect because they’re only really interested in collective conflict, in this case between classes, and not in more particularistic kinds of conflict. In this way, their version of class politics greatly romanticizes the unifying power of class identification. And this kind of class politics has burdened communist history with appalling sorrow, because when the romance of unconflicted class identity sours, as it usually does, the vulgar determinism, the name-calling – ‘petit bourgeois’, ‘kulak’, ‘capitalist roader’ and so forth – incites violence that has more to do with class romanticism than class differentiation. In that respect, I find the Maoist threat lurking within H&H’s review title chilling.

But let me now turn to issues of gender, household, family and interpersonal domination. There’s much more I’d like to say about all this, and I probably will in future posts, but for brevity here I’ll stick to just a few main points.

H&H press my unpleasant doppelganger Ejams into heavy service in this section with some outrageous distortions of my argument. We’re told that Ejams thinks women shouldn’t be permitted to own property independently, that states should restrict family size, that there really are such things as ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’, and that women specifically rather than both women and men should content themselves with modestly furnishing their households. Well, Ejams might think such shocking things, but I can assure them that Smaje most certainly doesn’t. If these arguments truly existed in the book rather than in H&H’s imaginations I would have rightly been pilloried for them by other readers. Perhaps the fact that nobody else has read these absurd ideas into my argument should prompt some self-reflection in the two that have.

Here’s something that I do think: many societies will face tensions in the future between individual economic liberty and the need for households and political communities to orchestrate renewable ecologies, and there’s a danger that these tensions will be resolved to the disadvantage of women. To me it seems better to discuss this openly rather than simply shooting the messengers who draw attention to the problem. Again, while Alex Heffron’s farm may be exemplary in simultaneously achieving individual self-realisation and uncoerced collectivity as well as ecological equilibrium, H&H’s easy recourse to anecdotal examples like this does not suggest to me that they are thinking about these issues at all seriously.

In fact, it troubles me that H&H reserve such special scorn for family relationships, equating them with slavery. Of course it’s true that family relationships can be coercive, which is why I devote attention to this problem in my book. If H&H themselves have suffered from this, they have my sympathies. Alternatively, they might be drawing from a popular genre of radical writing about kinship that somewhat puzzles me – the kind where people in their private lives choose to engage in rich and complex, if often difficult, ongoing relationships with their own parents, siblings, children, or other relatives, to which they devote enormous energy, yet denounce it all as mere slavery and coercion when they’re at the writing desk. Either way, it would be useful for H&H to specify exactly what is coercive about family relationships and exactly how this is avoided in other kinds of relationships. Villages, nations, schools, charities, churches, collective farms, cooperatives, social services departments, children’s homes, trade unions and soviets can be coercive too.

Kinship is a persistent form of human organization that will certainly outlast the present modernist epoch of global politics, whereupon it may start to do more political work. Unquestionably, it has its downsides, which I wrestle with in my book and inevitably fail to resolve. The trap that H&H fall into is in supposing that, once they’ve somehow vanquished kin relations, other social relationships will be free of coercion and domination. It’s all very well to appoint themselves to the umpire’s chair and endlessly denounce me, or rather Ejams, for patriarchy. But eventually they’ll need to get down from the chair and start doing some wrestling themselves.

When they do, since I have no problem with non-family forms of small-scale farming, I’m sure there will be much in their vision that I’ll welcome. I did press the case specifically (but not exclusively) for family farming – but not patriarchal family farming – in my book because I felt the need to twist the stick in the other direction from the kind of prejudices against it on the left that are all too evident in H&H’s review, but I welcome visions for non-family based agrarianism, provided that they (a) address the issues of capital formation, capital limitation and capital flow I discussed above, (b) address the fact that domination in human relationships is not restricted to families and will stalk whatever alternative social relations are proposed, and (c) show an entry-level respect for non-domination by not seeking to prevent people from forming family groups and farming in them should they choose.

Finally, at the end of their review, H&H mention various agrarian institutions and organizations that inspire them, some of which surprise me. For example, they mention La Via Campesina, which has been criticized by Marxists for its ‘upper peasant’ politics – unfairly, in my opinion, but it’s odd that H&H give it a free pass in view of their heavy emphasis elsewhere on peasant differentiation. They also mention the Land Workers’ Alliance – of which I was a founding member – many of whose activists are family-based owner-occupiers of small commercial farms of the kind H&H find so problematic. They mention Sylvanaqua Farms in the USA, so presumably are inspired by its co-owner Chris Newman’s idea of raising US$50 million in private capital on a peer-to-peer basis to democratize farming in his area. Perhaps they could then explain why they have such a problem with my rather similar idea of an inheritance tax collected into local agricultural banking to prevent wealth concentration (and therefore landlordism), effectively a peer-to-peer capital raising scheme geared to transferring farming opportunities democratically from one generation to the next. So indeed, these are impressive organisations. But I’m baffled as to why H&H think they fit their own agrarian politics better than mine.

There are many other issues to contest in H&H’s summarizing of my book, and perhaps at some point it would be good to debate these with them, especially if they could refrain from trying to turn me at every opportunity into my reactionary doppelganger Ejams. But for now I’ll leave it there. I hope I’ve said enough to indicate that my book sees no panaceas in the traditions of small scale and family farming, but does find much to learn from them. And that there are no easy answers to the dilemmas of creating just and renewable post-capitalist societies.

Of scarcity and scale

Let me begin with a quick heads-up on my forthcoming book. It’s been somewhat delayed in the editing, but Covid-19 permitting it’s now slated for publication at the end of October. So please be sure to keep some cash in your piggy bank for the tail-end of the year…

One reason the book was delayed in the editing is because the initial draft grew a little unwieldy and I’ve had to spend time paring it down. There’s just so much to say about smallness, farming and the future! Some of my edits are destined to languish forever on the cutting room floor, perhaps rightly so, but there are a few sections I think deserve to see the light of day. So I’m aiming to publish them here on the blog as a kind of ‘best of the rest’ selection – or, to a put a more positive spin on it, as background reading that fills out in greater detail some of the book’s balder and briefer assertions and analyses.

This post is the first of these selections, lightly edited to fit into the blog format, involving some reflections on farm scale, yield and income. Right now, however, I’m in the thick of the final book edit, so please forgive me if my replies to any comments are more peremptory than normal.

oOo

For numerous reasons, I’ve long argued for a small farm future, where a large proportion of the population work as small-scale agricultural proprietors producing food both for themselves (a crucial point, as I’ll emphasize below) and for market sale. But it has to be said that historically the lot of the small proprietor often hasn’t been a happy one.

Optimal in theory, sub-optimal in practice – in his book Agricultural Revolution in England1, Mark Overton includes an interesting table that enables us to probe this issue. The table presents data from two pre-industrial English grain farms, which are hypothetical but presumably grounded in Professor Overton’s experience as a prominent agricultural historian – a large farm of 100 acres and a small farm of 10 acres:

Farm Productivities
Column

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
Large farm
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 50 1200 4 4800 4800
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 50 900 6.6 5940 5940
3 1 100 10 1000 250 50 700 10 7000 7000
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 50 500 16.9 8450 8450
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 50 200 55.3 11060 11060
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5

 

In Rows 1-5 Overton gives some input/output figures for the large farm under various assumptions of good, normal and poor harvest. In an agricultural economy that’s largely self-sufficient in staples locally or nationally, demand for grain is price inelastic (ie. it stays fairly constant regardless of price, because everybody needs to eat). Because of this inelasticity, in times of dearth the price of grain shoots up disproportionately to the fall in output, meaning that the large farm gets more income in bad harvest years than good ones (compare Row 1, Column 9 with Row 5, Column 9).

The outcome isn’t so happy for the small farmer, shown in Rows 6-10. In the poorest harvest years, s/he produces less grain than s/he needs to consume (Row 10, Column 7), and has to buy in extra grain to eat at the inflated scarcity price, therefore making a net loss (Row 10, Column 9). Too many seasons like that and the farm goes under, forcing the farmer to find some other employment – if they can.

But Overton makes a key and rather hidden assumption. Before it sells any grain the farm household first has to meet its own need for sustenance, which is the same year by year for a given household size regardless of the harvest. Overton allows for this in Column 6, but he makes it the same for both the 100 and 10 acre farms. So the same number of farmworkers in both cases (and the same yields per acre) but on the large farm the same number of workers are applied to an area ten times the size of the small farm, and therefore have ten times the labour productivity.

That’s a reasonable (in fact, conservative) picture of what tends to happen when small-scale farmers with hand tools or draft teams confront large-scale ones with all the paraphernalia of modern fossil-fuelled industrial agriculture. The labour productivity of the latter is vastly greater, and since labour is a major cost driver, this pushes poor small-scale farmers out of staple crop production and into commodity crop or non-farm employment markets where they’re subject to wider market forces, usually to their disadvantage. This is why calls in the rich countries to improve labour-shedding technologies, increase yields and lower the price of food in order to ‘feed the world’ in fact are more likely to starve it.

But I’m not sure Overton’s labour productivity figures present a reasonable picture of preindustrial English agriculture, or situations generally where the large-scale farm has no technology or labour-productivity advantage. Suppose we recalculate Overton’s table assuming that each acre of farmland requires the same amount of human labour applied to it. It then looks like this:

Farm productivities scaled to labor productivity
Column

1

 

2

 

3

 

4

 

5

 

6

 

7

 

8

 

9

 

10

Row Harvest ratio to normal Acres Yield (bushels/acre) Gross output Seed On farm consumption Net Output Price (d/bushel) Total income Income/labor unit
1 1.5 100 15 1500 250 500 750 4 3000 300
2 1.2 100 12 1200 250 500 450 6.6 2970 297
3 1 100 10 1000 250 500 250 10 2500 250
4 0.8 100 8 800 250 500 50 16.9 845 84.5
5 0.5 100 5 500 250 500 -250 55.3 -13825 -1382.5
Small farm
6 1.5 10 15 150 25 50 75 4 300 300
7 1.2 10 12 120 25 50 45 6.6 297 297
8 1 10 10 100 25 50 25 10 250 250
9 0.8 10 8 80 25 50 5 16.9 84.5 84.5
10 0.5 10 5 50 25 50 -25 55.3 -1382.5 -1382.5

 

By equalizing the labour productivities in Column 6, the advantage of the large farm has disappeared. Like the small farm, its income turns negative in the poorest harvest years, and its financial returns per unit of labour are exactly the same. In fact, in preindustrial England and in many other places historically the evidence suggests that, if anything, there are diseconomies of large scale in terms of output per acre, so the small farm may be advantageously placed.

There are four points I’d like to draw out from this little exercise by way of conclusion.

First, there isn’t some natural economic law that favours large over small economic units. Only in specific social and technical circumstances is this likely to be the case.

Second, one such case has been global agricultural mechanization over the past century or so. If like units of labour earn more or less the same per hour whatever they do, and if there are no diseconomies of increased scale in relation to labour-shedding agricultural mechanization, then small farms producing grain by hand or small machine will be disadvantaged relative to larger farms that are terraformed to the requirements of large machines employing equivalent labour. What seems much less clear to me is that this will continue to be true into the future. In the coming years we’re probably going to have to find low carbon employment for people in their multitudes. In this situation, labour productivity will probably be less important than carbon intensity and gainful employment – and the small farm may be better fitted to that end.

Third, a talking point in mainstream agricultural economics is that ‘free’ markets rather than household or community self-reliance are a better safeguard against hunger. Sometimes that can be true. The exorbitant prices for grain apparent in Column 8 as the yields in Column 3 decline might have been smoothed out with imports of cheaper grain from other parts of the world experiencing grain surpluses.

But there are several grounds for caution here. There’s the problem of dumping I mentioned above, with long-term negative effects on the local economy. There’s the issue that while cheaper grain imported from elsewhere may be welcome when harvests are poor, the exporters are usually price-seekers, not humanitarians. The cheaper grain may not be cheap enough to fully relieve distress – distress arising largely from local social arrangements which wider market dynamics aren’t geared to mitigating. Indeed, speculation on financialized global markets is a driver of food price increases, not a wider market solution to local distress. Finally, in the climate and water-challenged world that’s now upon us, it’s unwise to assume that cheap grain at steady prices will be readily available on the global market. The places that produce most of the grain surpluses are among the ones that are most climate and water challenged – and, as we’ve seen recently, when push comes to shove administrations prioritize production for domestic use, at least for those among their populations they wish to court.

Fourth and finally, inasmuch as farms of any scale might be economically threatened by poor harvests, it seems to me that Overton’s analysis points to two remedies. The first is that the farm household should place a high priority on producing for its own needs in a resilient, pessimal manner so that the net output figures in Column 7 are unlikely ever to turn negative, even in bad years, as a matter of ecological management. The second is that the farm household should aim to be part of a wider community and economy of farm households whose political guardians offer them support so that in bad years the figures in Column 7 don’t turn negative as a matter of political fiat. I think both of these remedies will be necessary in a sustainable and resilient small farm future.

Generally, the point I want to stress is that the bad outcome for the small farmer of the kind highlighted by Overton doesn’t arise from some intrinsic disadvantage of small scale, but from relative labor productivities in the existing globalized capitalist market – which isn’t the only way or necessarily the most sensible way of organizing food production and social wellbeing.

Reference

  1. Mark Overton. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500-1850. Cambridge University Press.

 

Ciao Mao?

Apologies for my recent silence on here, not least in relation to the interesting comments at the end of my last post to which I couldn’t find the time to reply. No sooner had I revived this blog from my long book-writing layoff than I was laid low again with various urgent tasks – including a return to the book manuscript for an editorial overhaul. These tasks are ongoing so I fear I may have to disappear again for a while, but I hope more briefly than the last hiatus. And perhaps I’ll show up for a couple of interim posts. After all, another Brexit-fuelled election beckons – and where would British politics be without the next instalment of the widely-celebrated Small Farm Future miniseries: Which-of-these-darned-idiots-do-I-have-to-vote-for-this-time?

But let me sign off with a brief train of thought. Just as I was getting to grips with Julia Lovell’s fascinating book Maoism: A Global History who should appear in my Twitter feed the other day but an old adversary of Small Farm Future, Leigh Phillips, agitating against agrarian labour intensification on the grounds that it was a policy pursued by the genocidal Maoist regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. That’s right, folks: in Leigh-world, if Pol Pot adopted agrarian labour intensification, then it follows that those who advocate agrarian labour intensification must support the politics of Pol Pot. By this logic, Leigh’s huge enthusiasm for nuclear power surely reveals itself as mere advocacy for the Gulag…

The only reason I mention this flummery is because it strikes me that the exact opposite thesis is probably more worthy of attention: unless we adopt agrarian labour intensification, the chances of a resurgent Maoism are amplified.

Let me try to put a little flesh on those bones…

Maoism is a virtually incomprehensible political doctrine in the west, and in any case has come to seem a dead letter with the eclipse or collapse of almost all the world’s significant Maoist regimes. But let’s not be too hasty with the obituaries. As with most political ‘isms’ the exact parameters of Maoism are ever fluid and hard to specify precisely, which is why these isms keep reinventing themselves, often in unexpected places. In the case of Maoism, wherever there are poor rural populations who perceive themselves to be oppressed by colonial or neocolonial power and are ready to contest it with violence, then the grounds for it are prepared.

There are a lot of places like that in the world today, and Maoism is far from a dead letter in many of them. There are set to be more such places in the future, with rural poverty and ever more nakedly coercive neocolonial power set to be augmented. So I wouldn’t bet against future Maoist insurgencies… Indeed, more sophisticated thinkers than Phillips such as his Verso stablemates Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann in their Climate Leviathan raise the spectre of future ‘Climate Mao’ regimes arising on the back of climate crisis and other perturbations in global politics, to which such regimes have ready-made answers…

…ready-made, but pretty unappealing – at least I can agree with Phillips on that. So for those of us who’d rather not see a return of Maoism, what is to be done? You get a sense of Phillips’ answer from the subtitle of his first book – “A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff”. Via a shopworn reading of Karl Marx on the necessity of capitalism prior to socialism, Phillips cheerleads the present global capitalist economy as the precursor to socialist prosperity for all. Probably, he and his chums at the Breakthrough Institute genuinely believe this shtick, though their strident scorn for anyone who questions if it’ll really turn out so well does make me wonder if they protest a little too much. Radical-sounding but business-as-usual and corporate-friendly plays well to many galleries.

Yet if it doesn’t turn out so well, then the conditions for Climate Mao are ramped up another notch. We know these plotlines – further global inequality, further rural immiseration, further Ricardian landlordism and rentier capitalism, further climate breakdown, further political militarization. And, for reasons copiously discussed on this site over the years, there are plenty of reasons to think it won’t turn out so well.

An alternative, also copiously discussed on this site, is a more local, non-growth oriented, sustainable, agrarian and – yes – more labour-intensive (creating more green, low-carbon jobs is a good thing, right?) human ecology. The consequences would be globally redistributive and effectively anti-colonial, taking a lot of the heat out of the preconditions for Maoist insurgency. And possibly some of the heat out of the atmosphere too.

To put it another way, if you’d prefer to avoid harsh dystopias of involuntary rural simplicity in the future of the Pol Pot variety, then there’s a good case for working up some gentle utopias of voluntary rural simplicity right now, and trying to implement them. Inevitably, they’ll involve more people spending more time working in the garden. For many us, that isn’t such an appalling prospect, so long as there isn’t somebody alongside us there holding a gun to our heads on the lookout for incorrect thought. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what it feels like metaphorically when you engage with Mr Phillips…

Finally, a housekeeping point. I’m happy to receive individual communications via the Contact Form on matters of particular or private interest, with replies at my discretion. But if you’d like to debate or contest something I’ve said in a blog post and get a reply from me, please post it as a public comment on my Small Farm Future site, and I’ll do my best. Thank you. And ciao for now.

The International Day of Peasant’s Struggle – some notes from the farm

A happy International Day of Peasant’s Struggle to you. Talking of which, I’m still struggling away trying to write my book about peasants while the rest of the farm crew are up in London protesting about government inaction on climate change, which means I’m having to do a bit of proper work as well for a change – all reasons why this blog is wallowing in the doldrums at the moment.

So here are just a few nuggets to keep it ticking over for the time being. I’m hoping normal service will resume in the autumn.

In the book draft, I’d been penning a few critical thoughts concerning Emma Marris’s take on ‘post-wilderness’. Then I went out to do some farm chores, one of which was removing old shreds of plastic mulch littering the place. Under almost every one, I found a nest of ants mightily pissed off at the disturbance and the consequent need to move their precious eggs. Post-wilderness. What to make of it all, I can’t say.

Prior to the post-wilderness section, I crafted some thoughts on future energy scenarios, which prompted me to finally read this paper by Victor Court that Joe and Clem linked on here a while ago. My thanks to them for doing so, it’s a real cracker – not least because it connects up various issues of interest to me, including the matter of perennial crops in the context of r and K selection. An excerpt from the paper:

“the [principle of maximum entropy production (MEP)] provides the explicit criteria linking selection at the individual level with emergent and directional properties at higher levels of organization such as communities and ecosystems … there are three different MEP selection pressures at work during the development of an ecosystem. The first maximizes the rate at which entropy production increases through successional time, which, initially at least, is achieved via rapid colonization of species with fast individual/population growth rates called ‘r-selected species.’ The second selection component of MEP is for maximum sustained entropy production during maturity. This is achieved via maximizing biomass and structural complexity, which necessarily involves longer-lived, larger, slower-growing organisms named ‘K-selected species.’ The third selection component is for stress-tolerating species extending the effective mature phase and postponing retrogression of the ecosystem. Thus, given the existence of ecological disturbance in the landscape, the MEP theory leads to the prediction that there should be long-term co-existence of r- and K-selected species, a directional transition from r- to K-selected species during succession, and increasing predominance of K-selected species in ecosystems with longer disturbance return times.”

To my mind, this is suggestive of the hard trade-offs I hypothesized between productivity and longevity in temperate perennial grain crops and the unpromising options for artificial selection to create a win-win across those dimensions. Maybe it’s also suggestive of (1) an energetic basis to that elusive idea, an emergent property of ecosystems, which ecologists I’ve debated with on here like Ford Denison and Andy McGuire treat with great skepticism, and (2) a similar dynamic in human societies and civilizations when a new and abundant source of energy is tapped – from the high energy throughput, high entropy ‘r’ phase to the low energy throughput lower entropy ‘K’ stage. In that respect, perhaps we can expect a small farm future that will resemble aspects of the small farm past, unless and until it’s disturbed by the discovery or creation of new energetic stocks.

Meanwhile, I’m currently reading David Montgomery’s book Growing A Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of anyone who’s read it.

I’m also continuing to ponder my comment policy in the light of recent discussions on this site here and here, and also in the light of events in the wider world – especially the mass murder of people in New Zealand on the grounds that they were Muslim, by a murderer who invoked some of the same Islamophobic tropes that I’ve tolerated up to now on this site. Then again, he also invoked various environmentalist tropes, prompting some people (not in good faith, IMO) to identify him with an eco-terrorism of limits and boundaries. If anyone feels they have insights in these murky waters I’m (probably) interested to hear them…

Moving on, the blog post I’d most like to write at the moment but don’t have time to do properly is one about commons, and in particular the need to go beyond an Ostrom vs Hardin duality. I’ve recently seen a few posts and tweets suggesting that it’s wrong to even mention Hardin on the grounds of his racism, eugenicism and general wrongheadedness (hmmm, back to the comments policy issue…) But a true grasp of Ostrom’s work and that of other analysts of common pool resource regimes surely involves appreciating that successful CPRs are successful precisely inasmuch as they recognize the dangers of a Hardin-style tragedy and take well-crafted steps to avoid it. Trying to erase Hardin from polite discussion is about as sure a way of realizing his presentiments as I can imagine. More on that at some point soon, I hope.

Finally, our friend Adam Tooze – star of the this recent post guest-written by Michelle Galimba – has penned an interesting article in the LRB essentially arguing that Trump’s USA is gearing up for a gloves-off superpower showdown with China that constitutes a break with the narrative of globalization since the 1990s, but not with the longer-term reality of a US-led world political order, to which the globalization model now stands as a threat. What has ended, according to Tooze, is any claim on the part of the US that it has a wider, benevolent political model to share with the world. Or as some old TV celeb has-been recently put it, “From this day forward it’s going to be only America first, America first”. Hey, I think Professor Tooze must have been reading Small Farm Future.

 

Destiny delayed

29 March 2019 – a famous day in British history. Why? Well, er…dammit, I can’t quite remember – just seems like an ordinary day, to be honest. Possibly, though I don’t like to brag, it’s because today’s the day when I finished the complete first draft of my book manuscript – surely a date to rank with the finest in our nation’s history? But I’ve got a funny feeling that’s not it. Aha, got it, by Jove! Today’s the day when Britain throws off the shackles of its vassalage to the European Union and strikes out alone – a sovereign and independent nation once again.

Except we haven’t. At their summit, EU heads of government allowed us to eke out another fortnight to try to come up with even the semblance of an idea as to how to exit in such a way that the country doesn’t crumple in a heap. It’s all a far cry from newspaper headlines of two years ago like ‘Give us a fair deal or you’ll be crushed’. Watching the Brexit process unfold was initially like a slow-motion train crash where you could pretty much predict the damage that would occur as it screeched along the rails, but now it’s gone fully off-piste and keeps careering into things you scarcely expected were in danger. Where it ends, there’s no telling.

I’d been planning to write a kind of comedy Brexit guide for the perplexed, but it just feels too ghoulish – like laughing at people as they go down in a sinking ship, even if it was their own choice to scuttle it. Besides, where to begin and where to end? The breakdown of the two major parties, an election that didn’t go well for anybody, a zombie government repeatedly bashing its head against the wall, constitutional crisis, a paralyzed parliament bereft of party discipline, trouble in Scotland, big trouble in Ireland, economic hemorrhaging, ferry companies with no ferries, senior politicians advocating an Anglo-Spanish war, other senior politicians resigning after gaining parliamentary assent for their own policies, junior politicians making creepy requests for information on academic teaching concerning Europe or suggesting that expressions of support for the EU are treasonous – a word that has suddenly returned to the political vocabulary on both sides of the divide, though on one side more than the other. A conspicuous absence of any real notion about what the exact benefits of Brexit might be. And an issue costing so much political time and money that other, more important, issues are in abeyance.

Nope, it’s all too much for me. So let me just home in on a few points of particular interest to this blog.

#1: An implicit and sometimes explicit question that often invests my writings here at Small Farm Future is whether the present structuring of the global political economy has much chance of enduring into the future given the various looming crises we face globally and locally. My general feeling is no, though I’ve annoyed people over time on here for my ‘no’ being either too firm or not firm enough. Well, I now submit Brexit as a kind of pilot study to suggest the implausibility of ‘yes’. A small dollop of undigested nationalism combined with a side-twist of haughty neoliberalism to dramatize the difference between the haves and have-nots has been enough to plunge the state in one of the richest countries in the world into a full-on political crisis. What hope of avoiding deeper crisis when larger economic, biophysical and political issues confront us? True, the government has handled Brexit with astonishing incompetence from start to finish. Higher caliber politicians wouldn’t have got us into this impasse. But these are the people we elected. I don’t think it’s safe to assume that bigger crises will call forth wiser heads.

#2: Brexit has been a textbook case for the way rightwing populism (RWP) operates. It’s wholly different to the forms of agrarian or left populism I’ve advocated on this blog, to the extent that the shared moniker is misleading. Here’s the page from the RWP rulebook: organize plebiscites that invite the assent of voters to a very general question (“Should the United Kingdom leave the European Union?”). Mount a mendacious publicity campaign, funded if possible with money of dubious provenance from abroad, to promote the preferred RWP choice. Then, if the electorate opts for said choice by a narrow margin that splits it more or less 50-50, pronounce that the result is “the will of the people” and dogmatically pursue an extremist interpretation of it in the teeth of any kind of wider debate or compromise. When you combine the probable future crises mentioned in #1 with the divisiveness and ill-will generated by #2, the prospects for devising a politics equal to the impending crises we face seem slight.

#3: A point I’ve often made on this site is that the global economy is structured unfairly to the benefit of a small group of wealthy countries. To a considerable extent this now works through complex forms of organizational capital and technocratic global governance. The Brexit process has laid this bare. The Brexiteers have fulminated against bureaucracy and technocracy in favor of national sovereignty, but it’s increasingly clear that ‘national sovereignty’ can’t deliver the kind of economic goods to which we in Britain, even the poorest of us, have been accustomed. I don’t think this bothers some of the main Brexiteers, because what they want is a low-regulation business environment based on low-paid and precarious labor. But I think it ought to bother the rest of us. A particular aspect of this dynamic has been the far greater power wielded by the EU acting as a united bloc against the UK, including the way it’s protected the interests of Ireland which historically has been bullied by the greater might of Britain. When you step outside your friendship group, the world can be a cold place.

#4: Since about half the EU budget is spent on agriculture, Brexit is clearly going to have a big impact on issues at the heart of this blog, but it’s too soon to say what they’ll be. As an economic power bloc the EU, like the US, is a malign force in global agriculture, but a UK exit in the absence of plans for sustainable national food security is unlikely to bring much benefit nationally or internationally. The Common Agricultural Policy will be mourned by few, but despite its manifest failings it seems probable that British farmers will be economically worse off after its demise, prompting a further hemorrhage of small and medium-scale farmers from the industry. Despite Michael Gove at DEFRA clothing himself in a new suit of green, it also seems probable that Brexit Britain will open itself up and align itself regulatorily with the USA. “Chlorinated chicken” is already a phrase in the public consciousness. We ain’t seen nothing yet. And before anyone waxes too lyrical about the impediments thrown up by CAP to the small farmer, it’s worth remembering that successive British governments have consistently used what discretionary powers they have under it to bolster large-scale commodity farming at the expense of small-scale, locally-oriented food sovereignty.

oOo

But let me try to work up a positive scenario out of this Farage farrago. The EU has its own problems – in the Eurozone, between east and west, between north and south. The fact that Britain was mercifully free of most of these makes Brexit all the more idiotic, but the problems aren’t going to go away with our departure. The fear – and probably for me the main reason to stay in – is that without the EU, Europe will descend into a poisonous broth of nationalist conflict, a place it’s been before that didn’t turn out too well. But it’s possible that the sheer haplessness of the nationalist mythologizing around Brexit and the collapse of the Tories as a united party of government will inoculate us against it in the UK for some time to come.

The weakened economy and damaged credibility of central government may also prompt greater local and regional self-organization of the kind we sorely need to see us through in the future. Perhaps even the outlines of what elsewhere I’ve called the supersedure state may begin to emerge. So when combined with probable future food and energy crisis, there’s a chance that we may yet wrest the phoenix of an outward-looking small farm future from the ashes of Brexit. But the stakes are high, and the obstacles many.

Of cages and hedges

Comments are back on after my return from a brief and computer-less sojourn in the Scottish Highlands. Computer-less, but TV-enabled (the opposite to my usual life on the farm), enabling me to watch endless programs about homesteading in Alaska and, when the mood took me, to keep up with the UK’s fast-developing, eminently predictable and wholly avoidable constitutional crisis over Brexit.

For those with better things to do than following the machinations in Westminster, here’s a quick summary of how Conservative MPs have recently voted.

  • No confidence in Theresa May’s leadership of the party: 117 out of 317
  • No confidence in Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU: 118 out of 317
  • Confidence in Theresa May’s government: 317 out of 317

No, me neither. Meanwhile, Small Farm Future has been engaging in arcane voting procedures of its own in relation to the heated issue of which topic to post on next. And the winner (by a crushing margin) is…the unexpurgated version my article ‘Of cages and hedges’ which has recently appeared in The Land Magazine (Issue 24, pp.56-7, since you asked).

After this post, I’ll post my interview with David Bandurski – author of the book Dragons in Diamond Village, on which my article in The Land was based. Then there’ll be radio silence for a while so I can focus on writing my own book. After that I’ll write a post on property, immigration and boundaries. And that’s a promise.

But first, here’s ‘Of Cages and Hedges’:

oOo

The lessons of China’s tumultuous history demand attention from those of us who advocate for more localized, land-based economies as part of the solution to global problems. The only civilization to survive more-or-less intact from antiquity to the present, much of its history was characterized by a relatively stable compact between a property-owning peasantry and an imperial bureaucracy the envy of peasants in other lands[i]. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century ‘modernisation’ sharpened the conflict between social classes, culminating in Mao’s communist revolution and its enforced ‘iron rice bowl’ of rigidly-policed peasant equality and sufficiency. According to political scientist Lynn White, the disasters of Maoist economic policy and political intriguing in the 1950s and 60s created substantial local autonomy – and, more than the top-down reforms of the post-Mao regime, this autonomy fostered a peasant-led, bottom-up economic dynamism that laid the foundations for China’s emergence in recent years as a major global capitalist power[ii].

Land-workers and food sovereignty activists won’t need much convincing that, given the chance, peasants and rural people can create abundant and thriving local economies. But other aspects of China’s rise are more troubling to that narrative. Chen Yun famously described China’s post-Mao economy as a ‘birdcage’, in which the free-flying and prosperity-generating bird of capitalism was kept to its proper bounds by a socialist cage. But the reality is that in modern China the bird has long since flown the cage. This comes as no surprise to Marxists, who’ve always suspected that peasants are really just capitalists or landless wage-workers in disguise. But for agrarian thinkers who want to retain a notion of thriving but stable, non-capitalist rural economies, we somehow need to come up with a better cage.

Another troubling issue is revealed by a look at global farming statistics. Worldwide since 1990, there’s been a decline of 240 million people reported as employed in farming. But looking country-by-country, there’s been an outflow of 448 million people from farming – the majority (311 million) from China, where the proportion of people working in agriculture has declined from 55% in 1991 to 18% in 2017. That implies that there’s been an increase in farm employment elsewhere, and indeed there are 84 countries with a net increase in the number of people in farming totalling 208 million people. The majority of these (161 million) are in sub-Saharan Africa, partly reflecting the strong population growth in that region but also reflecting its poverty[iii]. It’s hard to preach an enticing vision for the peasant way when the majority of people entering it are the poorest on earth, and the majority of people exiting it live in a country that’s hurtling along a capitalist path of self-enrichment.

But a closer look at that capitalist path reveals a more complex story of ‘enrichment’, albeit one that’s familiar in its main details from capitalist paths of enrichment in other times and places. After the rural dynamism mentioned above got the ball rolling, China’s rise as a global economic power was based on export manufacturing industries built on the back of cheap migrant labour from the countryside to urbanizing-industrializing areas. One reason for its cheapness has been China’s household registration system, whereby rural migrants remain classified by their places of origin and are denied access to the superior health, educational, social and fiscal services available to city residents, thereby personally bearing much of the social costs of the industrialization founded in their labour[iv].

More recently, as with other maturing capitalist powers, there’s been a significant shift in Chinese wealth-creation out of industrialization and into financialization – particularly in relation to urban real estate. David Bandurski’s fine book Dragons in Diamond Village traces how this works, mostly via the engaging stories of individual people fighting the corrupt web of city officials, party leaders, village heads and police officers[v]. A distinctive feature of this in urbanizing China that Bandurski analyses in detail is the violent pressure that falls on collectively-held village land as it’s swallowed up by urbanization. These ‘urban villages’ have typically become crowded residential city neighbourhoods housing poor rural migrant labourers – slums in other words – with the original villagers acting as petty landlords under predatory pressure to relinquish their rights to village land and even to their own houses for the purposes of property development or gentrification, with the proceeds pocketed higher up the political food chain.

The plight of the urban villagers may seem a lesser one than that of the rural migrant labour force, and indeed in an interview with me David Bandurski explained that other urban-dwellers were often dismissive of their resistance to state enclosure, assuming that they were doing nicely out of their property rights. But he emphasized the predatory power of the state forces ranged against them, adding “I never understood the need to minimize the suffering of urban villagers by pretending they were sultans in comparison to struggling migrants. But you often heard this. And I think this arises in part from the political stigmatization of self-interest, which is confused with greed.”[vi]

This self-interest/greed nexus is an interesting feature that emerges from the analysis of Chinese capitalism by Bandurski and others. Capitalist development in the west has drawn on powerful but largely fallacious theories that individual self-interest, or even greed, fosters collective wellbeing, stretching right back to Adam Smith’s discussion of the invisible hand of the market in his Wealth of Nations published in 1776. Western capitalist mythology still celebrates the ideology of the little guy, the individual entrepreneur with the great idea, despite the dominance of the actual economy by vast corporate-monopoly enterprises. Bandurski writes contrastingly of China:

“one of the distinguishing features of what has been called “urbanization” in a Chinese context is that the role of the human being is minimized against the backdrop of a larger-than-life vision of the urban. A kind of urban mythology of the city as a place of dynamism and ultimately prosperity. You can see this readily in the propaganda around the city, which emphasizes the modern fabric of the city—the skyscrapers, the monuments, the high-speed rail…on one trip to countryside in Henan I saw how the mosaic scenes outside rural homes had been changed from scenes of nature to scenes of the megacity dominated by an expressway in diminishing perspective running through the center, luxury cars whishing past montages of architecture from Shanghai and Beijing. The caption was always: “Road to Prosperity.” But there were never people in those scenes, any more than in the government’s urban propaganda.”[vii]

Who knows how this will all turn out – but if economist Minqi Li’s analysis is correct, the probable answer is not well. At present, the combination of rising if poorly distributed incomes and the growing authoritarianism of the Xi Jinping regime is keeping the lid on social unrest in China. Bandurski pronounces himself “not very optimistic about the prospects for land rights activism becoming a real political force in China”. Longer-term, though, Li argues that at some point this century China’s dependence on fast economic growth through the terms of trade with its export partners along with its dependence on a prodigious fossil-energy use that’s neither economically nor ecologically sustainable will prompt a major crisis – political, economic and environmental – that will reverberate across China and the rest of the world and probably destroy much of what many people now take for granted about the modern world system[viii].

For westerners like me who’ve grown up in the alternative farming movement, it’s the older pre-revolutionary China that’s loomed largest in our thinking. Books like F.H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries emphasized the long-term sustainability of China’s labour-intensive, horticultural civilization, influencing western ecological movements like permaculture[ix]. In permaculture circles I’ve heard the adage repeated more than once that “the Chinese have forgotten more about gardening than the rest of the world ever knew”. But sadly it seems that their forgetting may now have matched our ignorance. In David Bandurski’s uncompromising words:

“One of the most basic things to understand about China’s so-called rural population is its clear and increasing remoteness from agricultural life. The vast majority are not farmers at all. Even one, two and now even three generations back they are not farmers. They have little or probably in most cases no agricultural knowledge.”[x]

It’s hard to derive an optimistic message from the familiar stories here of hard-won agricultural knowledge easily lost, enrichment by enclosure, economic maldistribution, short-term money-making at the cost of long-term crisis, and the elusiveness of a gilded rather than an iron cage to contain the spirits of the market. But China still has more people in farming than most industrialized countries, and a history of wrenching social transformation that may yet surprise the world again. David Bandurski mentions that many among China’s rural-industrial workforce still consider the family smallholding as a hedge against economic insecurity, while adding that, “This land isn’t a hedge in the real sense that any sustainable income could probably be derived from it, but only in the sense that it might enable subsistence at the most basic level.”[xi] The challenge as I see it is that the world at large urgently needs to improve its hedges – which may not sound like the right conclusion in view of what we know about the enclosure of the commons, though personally I’m convinced that well-hedged (in every sense) private smallholdings of the kind pioneered long ago in China can still offer one of the more persuasive roadmaps out of the present morass.

 

[i] Eric Wolf. 1969. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Harper & Row.

[ii] Lynn White. 2018. Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change. Routledge.

[iii] Figures in this paragraph calculated from World Development Indicators: http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=world-development-indicators

[iv] Hsiao-Hung Pai. 2013. Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants. Verso.

[v] David Bandurski. 2016. Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance from Urbanizing China. Melville House.

[vi] David Bandurski, personal communication.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Minqi Li. 2016. China and the 21st Century Crisis. Pluto.

[ix] F.H. King. 1911. Farmers of Forty Centuries: Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. Rodale.

[x] Bandurski, personal communication.

[xi] Ibid.

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.