From info-tech to post-capitalism?

Times have been hard of late for us leftists. Despite the fact that a good deal of our tradition’s criticisms of capitalism and modernity have proved accurate, the expected solutions haven’t really come – and when leftist governments have assumed power, they’ve often compounded the problems. New issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and resource squeezes, not to mention feminism, decolonisation and identity politics, have arisen and challenged old leftist certainties. Small wonder that there’s a cottage industry in the publishing world for new leftist books trying to make sense of all these emerging trends.

I’ve tried to keep up as best I can with a selection of these volumes. They vary from the gob-smackingly bad – like Leigh Phillips’ neo-Bolshevik Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts – to the serious and thought-provoking. To my mind, almost all of them suffer from an insufficiently analysed commitment to ‘progress’ and technological solutionism. It’s not that I’m arguing instead for regress and anti-technological, reactionary backwardness…here, you can already sense the narrow straitjacket that leftism (and not only leftism, but most mainstream political thought) throws around the debate over ‘progress’ and technology. We need to do a better job when we talk about these ideas and acknowledge their complexities. Not much chance of that with public intellectuals like Steven Pinker strutting their stuff – what’s this weird modernist obsession with proving how much better life is now than in the past all about?

Anyway, Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future (Penguin, 2015) is one of the better efforts I’ve read among this bad bunch. I still think it suffers from some of the characteristic weaknesses of mainstream leftist thought – and I think it would probably have been better titled Capitalism: A Guide To Our Past – but I’ve come away from it feeling enriched and informed. I’m not going to try to summarise it here, but I do want to review a few of Mason’s points that bear most directly on some of the concerns of this blog.

1. Capitalist crisis: Leftists, and Marxists in particular, have long argued that there are inherent tendencies to crisis within the capitalist economy, basically associated with the contradiction between finding consumers to buy its products and immiserating labour to cut its costs, and with replacing human labour with machinery. These tendencies are genuine, but the capitalist economy has proved much more resilient than the early Marxists supposed in overcoming its crises, essentially by finding ever new arenas (places, people, products) to commodify. It’s possible that the present impasse of the global capitalist economy will prove to be no more than another one of these temporary crises, but there are various signs that it’s more serious than that. In briefest outline, these include the unprecedented reliance on debt-fuelled growth by most of the major ‘developed’ countries, the scouring of value from these countries’ own increasingly immiserated populations, placing more wealth into the hands of an increasingly small global economic elite, the pressures of resource crisis and climate change, and the emergence within many of the major western economies of an impetus towards beggar-my-neighbour trade protectionism of the kind associated with the rhetoric, if not the deeds, of a figure like Donald Trump, with all the attendant 1930s-style dangers of global trade wars turning into global military conflict.

2. Working-class response: Marx himself had a rather naïve, intellectually-driven faith in the industrial working class as the universal historical class that would by itself right the wrongs of capitalism and of previous economic systems. But the more influential Marxist position, associated with someone who achieved actual political power, is Lenin’s critique of the ‘trade union consciousness’ of the industrial proletariat: without party cadres to push them into proper communism, according to Lenin all you get with industrial workers is demands for better pay and conditions. That’s pretty much the same viewpoint as legions of conservative thinkers, except what’s a negative for Lenin is a positive for them – witness, for example, John Michael Greer’s voluminous writings on the ‘wage class’ in the USA and its lack of interest in socialism. Mason, much more convincingly, shows how working class movements across the ‘developed’ world in the 19th and early 20th centuries actually did involve a strong leftist (though rarely Marxist) critique of capitalism, which emphasised education, self-improvement, the dignity of skilled manual work and the rich associational life of an engaged, disciplined, politicised workforce. As the contradictions of early 20th century capitalism began to mount, these movements faltered – destroyed by authoritarian populism and/or fascism, or bought off by social democracy, and ultimately snuffed out by neoliberalism with its destruction of organised labour in the west and its individualisation of economic action.

3. The rise of info-tech. The old leftist project is in ruins, then, but Mason sees new possibilities in the rise of networked information as the currency of 21st century human interaction. In his view, information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly, because markets are based on scarcity, whereas information is abundant. Meanwhile, info tech is lowering the marginal costs of production of numerous commodities – including basic physical commodities. The peer production of free stuff enabled by the info tech revolution is growing, enabling people to interact with each other as social beings outside the marketplace. Just as the old idea of the working class as the universal political class dies, a new idea of the well-educated and networked as the universal political class is born. At the same time, traditional forces of capitalist control are attempting to reassert themselves: vast tech monopolies like Google, repressive-authoritarian states and the constant reinvention of indebtedness to entrench exploitation. Hence are the contemporary battle lines between capitalism and post-capitalism drawn.


I think Mason has some brilliant insights into the story of capitalism and of the left’s somewhat-but-not-entirely futile attempts to understand and challenge it. I’m less convinced by the way he construes the coming conflict between monopoly capitalism and post-capitalist info-tech. I just don’t think he provides anything like a ‘thick’ enough description of future energy and resource prospects, the present structure of commodity manufacture and the nature of the open source or peer production movement to give his claims real weight. So it would be easy to dismiss his analysis as another example of starry-eyed, high tech, 3D-printer-fantasising flummery of the kind that disfigures so much ‘postcapitalist’ writing on the left these days. And indeed, in many ways his approach to the ‘zero marginal cost revolution’ isn’t that different to Kate Raworth’s, which I treated to a fairly peremptory dismissal on this site not so long ago.

But I don’t want to jettison his arguments quite so hastily. This is partly because he has a more nuanced view of info-tech as a contradiction within capitalist production, rather than simply as something that’s going to ride to the rescue of a grateful humanity. And it’s partly because I think his analysis can be reformulated in a more interesting way. So I’m going to conclude by trying to reformulate it.

I’ve long been sceptical of the idea of commons as a fundamentally superior form of economic organisation for the production of food and other key basic commodities (perhaps I’ll try to lay this argument out more systematically in another post). Given the opportunity, I think most people historically have preferred to provide for their household needs themselves as far as possible (which is not to say that commoning arrangements haven’t nevertheless been important in numerous ways). But it does seem to be the case that there’s a thriving ‘digital commons’ of peer-produced, open source free stuff out there in the world of information. I think Mason possibly overstates the significance of Wikipedia, Linux and Android compared to, say, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, but he undoubtedly has a point. So I wonder if there’s some key difference between the world of food production and the world of information production?

I’m not sure – if there is, I think it’s probably around such issues as the production of food demanding ongoing physical work over periods of time that are determined by the rhythms of the natural world and not by the choice of the worker, with rewards demanding that the marginal cost of production is quite low relative to the total cost of production. In the world of peer production of information – a new WordPress widget, for example – the work is more modular, determined by the choice of the worker, and with marginal costs of production quite high relative to the total cost of production. And the social kudos gained from producing the widget is much higher than the social kudos gained from producing, say, a carrot. So there’s that. But I think the main thing that’s going on here is that info-tech peer production is essentially an elite pursuit, only available to those in highly privileged positions within the global political economy, whose ability to produce stuff for free rests upon a lot of other people working hard to service their basic needs. The same might be said of a home veg grower who gives most of her produce away or volunteers at a community garden.

In that sense, the peer production of free stuff is made possible by hidden exploitation within the global political economy, and probably therefore stands in a somewhat less revolutionary position to that political economy than Mason supposes. But I think he’s still right that there’s a possibly terminal crisis afoot in that political economy, and that the networked, educated individual may have a role to play in ushering us towards something else. And this is where his critique may connect up with my conception of the supersedure state that I outlined recently.

Here’s how things may unfold. Conservative forces will try to maintain capitalism-as-usual – debt-fuelled growth, austerity and inequality, ever more draconian immigration control, authoritarian state power, connivance with multinational monopolies and so on. But, despite achieving short-term successes and creating a lot of misery, they won’t triumph everywhere, partly as a result of opposition from Mason’s networked, educated people (among others), partly because of exogenous pressures like energy prices and climate change, and partly because they won’t be able to deliver what capitalist political economies have always ultimately been able to deliver to enough people in previous eras to guarantee their survival – increasing wealth and consumer luxury.  Generally, states will weaken, and civil society will have thrust upon it the responsibility of providing for basic needs.

This will turn out to be a lot harder than many people thought – including networked, educated individuals who discover that securing a steady supply of food, clothing, energy and shelter isn’t as easy as producing a WordPress widget. Nevertheless, their instincts towards open collaboration with strangers, lateral thinking, environmental care and shared space will stand them in good stead when it comes to rethinking community provisioning from the ground up. As per my analysis of the supersedure state, states will gradually retreat towards their core centres and populations, which will be increasingly remote from and inaccessible to the majority of people living within their de facto boundaries. Commercial, cash-crop oriented export farming will start to lose its economic rationale, and this is the point at which new, locality-oriented forms of ‘peer production’ of basic necessities may step into the breach. There will be numerous challenges, false steps and failures, but there may also be interesting models, social innovations and successes.

That, at any rate, seems something to aim at. I don’t think we’ll see the world that Mason would like to see – essentially one of free or nearly free basic necessities, universal basic income and a lot of volunteering, leisure and peer production of info-tech. But I think we might see, at least in some places, a world that’s better than that, based on local work, community self-provision and wider political networks of amity within the increasingly empty and moribund shell of a larger body politic left over from 20th century capitalism. In that sense, it’s a world that may have similarities with the one built by the organised, leftist working-classes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Let’s just hope that history doesn’t then repeat itself too much.

The supersedure state

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

An Oxford education

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The carpets of Conservative Party HQ are seamed with blood.

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

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

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

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

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

The basic payments scheme inflates land prices (DEFRA).

No it doesn’t (CLA)

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

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

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

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

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

If only it was as simple as that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody wants to work on farms any more.

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

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

We need to grow more vegetables in the UK.

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

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

Dispersed grazing provides opportunities for new entrants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need shorter food chains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No they don’t.

Yes they do.

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

No they’re not.

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

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

Yes, hopefully.

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

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

No they’re not.

Yes they are.


Complicating the commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

The broken glass: some thoughts on ‘Population 10 Billion’

Danny Dorling’s book Population 10 Billion1 has been sitting in the in-tray of the Small Farm Future review department (along with a whole load of other books) for a couple of years now. I’ve been on their case about it, but until now I’ve had nothing from those slackers. Maybe I should introduce performance related pay… On which note, just a shout out for this blog’s seasonal appeal for funds, Wikipedia-style: “if every reader of Small Farm Future donated, er, about £1,000 annually, I could devote myself to it full-time and turn out the reviews a lot faster.” Or maybe I should make a pact with the devil and run ads. What d’ya think? Meantime, donate button is on the right.

Anyway, I have now read Dorling’s book and I want to share a few thoughts about it. They’re not in the form of a comprehensive warts-and-all review – rather, I want to highlight five themes of interest to me that anticipate some future posts, on which I think Dorling has thought-provoking things to say. And here they are:

1. Possibilism and the broken glass

Dorling defines himself as a ‘practical possibilist’ in his orientation to the future, arguing that we need more “stories that sit between those who say that all will be fine, and those who claim that we are doomed” (p.6).

It’s a good opening gambit, except that I think almost everyone occupies this ‘possibilist’ middle ground. Let’s call those who think ‘all will be fine’ in the future the optimists or utopians, and let’s call those who think that all of us are doomed no matter what we do from here the pessimists or dystopians. That leaves a very wide spectrum of opinion between those two poles. And yet we spend way too much time playing status games about our chosen positions on the continuum, castigating others for their excessive optimism or pessimism. I daresay I’ve been guilty of this myself at times. Enough of it. What really matters is debating the underlying models or visions, not sorting out the pecking order of who’s most appropriately optimistic or pessimistic.

For that reason, I’d like to suggest retiring the metaphor of the half empty or half full glass. Besides, why does it always have to be half empty or full? Suppose it was a quarter full, or three-quarters empty? Would we still be debating whether we were full or empty kind of people, or would we get busy trying to do something useful?

Another problem is that, for me at least, the human world seems a pretty dysfunctional place even in the absence of issues like climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss etc. Suppose someone waved a magic ecomodernist wand and vanquished all our environmental problems so that the world could settle into its existing social, political and economic arrangements for the long haul. For me, this would be a profoundly depressing prospect. All that misery, unfairness and anomie! So no, I don’t look at the potential salvation of contemporary civilisation as something to feel ‘optimistic’ about


Did you just hear the sound of a glass breaking? Me too. But was it a half-full or a half-empty one? Let me tell you this. I – don’t – care.

2. Population growth

Anyway, forget all that. When it comes to population, Dorling says the glass is half-full. Despite all the fears of a spiralling human population swamping the planet, he points out that fertility is falling almost everywhere, often rapidly. Human numbers are still set to rise for some time because of the demographic lags involved, but possibly as early as 2075 (p.38) an absolute decline in human population may start on the basis of current demographic trends without the need to invoke future collapses and catastrophes – the four horsemen, Dorling says, may already have paid their visit.

What interests me most about Dorling’s line of argument here is not the human numbers involved or their likely impact, but the historical demographics of it. Human numbers began to surge around 1850, and stopped surging around 1970. This is the context in which all of us alive today have been formed, but it’s historically unprecedented and it doesn’t look set to continue in the future. Dorling cautions that we need to stop seeing our recent past as some kind of stable norm from which to predict the future. His discussion of why this recent anomaly occurred is interesting, if a bit vague – issues such as the long-term consequences of Europe’s conquest of the Americas, the fossil fuel dividend, the rise of capitalism and concomitantly rising inequality. His discussion of how it’s coming to an end is also frustratingly vague at times – and, dare I say it, over-optimistic – but also interesting in its focus on improving public health, improving social rights, particularly for women, and migration. Let’s just hold those thoughts for a moment…

3. Population and Consumption

Dorling is entertainingly severe on the school of thought that puts population levels and consumption levels jointly in the dock for our present environmental ills. My own illustrative example of his point comes from the following passage, where Herman Daly – rightly feted as a pioneer of ecological or steady-state economics – is taking another writer, Mark Sagoff, to task for asserting that pollution results not from our numbers, but from our lifestyles and rate of consumption:

“The false denial of cause a in order more forcefully to assert cause b is faulty as logic and tiresome as rhetoric. It becomes ludicrous when the effect is caused by multiplying a and b together”2

OK, but what are a and b here? If a x b is total resource use (or pollution) and b is total population, then a must be per capita resource use, which is the same as total resource use divided by total population. So another way of writing Daly’s ‘causal’ equation of a and b is:

Total Resource Use = (Total Resource Use / Population) x Population

So I think Dorling, and Sagoff, are right. Population cancels out. The problem is resource use.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. The conceptual problem surely arises because both rising population and rising resource use are joint determined consequences of a deeper underlying historical trend – which, for shorthand, I’d call capitalism. Call it commercialisation, globalisation or marketization if you prefer. Barring some unprecedented catastrophe, there are going to be a lot of us on the planet for generations to come, and the reason we got to be here is basically because of capitalism/commercialisation etc. But population and resource use are ultimately autonomous variables. So can we maintain our high (if soon to be decreasing) human populations under a different economic regimen with a lower total resource use?

Dorling thinks so and, to his credit, although he occasionally veers towards ecomodernist terrain he’s clear that the answer doesn’t lie in some high tech solutionism which would have 8-10 billion people in the future consuming at US levels without environmental cost. “We who consume most have to consume less”, he writes (p.20). He talks – over-optimistically, in my opinion – about how the ‘developed’ western countries have already reached ‘peak stuff’, but I find his general line of argument interesting. Global population is set to decline, the conditions that prompted its enormous recent surge are no longer operative, and people are tentatively moving into a phase of more dematerialised consumption.

I doubt that on current trends these factors will be enough to stave off some major shocks. But I think they’re complementary in interesting ways to the neo-agrarian or neo-peasant agenda I promote on this blog. One of the main reasons people oppose a small farm or ‘peasant’ future is because the recent peasant past has been pretty grim. That’s partly because governments have deliberately made it so, but we’re emerging from a world of high rural fertility and high rural poverty into a new world of lower fertility based on more health and social rights, a degree of dematerialisation among the wealthiest but also a powerful need for the wealthiest to consume less. To my mind, this points to the need for a new kind of global peasantism based on relatively labour-intensive but relatively low fertility and socially entitled peasant households engaged in high nature value, reasonably remunerated (in cash to some extent, but more importantly in kind) local farming. I’m not saying that it’ll be easily achieved, but it does help identify some big social trends that peasant and agrarian activists can hitch their wagons to, and it puts some clear water between what a peasantism of the future might look like and what some of the peasantisms of the past looked like. Certainly, we can learn from the latter, but reading Dorling underlines for me a point I’ve tried to make before – a small farm future doesn’t necessarily have to look exactly like a small farm past.

However, in order to hang on to the benefits of a low fertility, steady state society we need to retain peace, order and social rights, particularly women’s rights. In other words, we need to retain the kind of liberal public sphere that – another point I’ve made before – various cheerleaders for a post-liberal politics within and without the environmental movement are enthusiastically trying to dismantle at the moment.

Bottom line: more or less whatever happens we’re set to have unprecedentedly high populations for a long time to come, a population level arising from a high consumption capitalist society. But it’s possible that in future there may be a lower consumption, non-capitalist, high population society. Let’s get on it.

4. Migration

I’m planning to write another post about migration soon, but to anticipate a few points by way of Dorling’s analysis, he points out that while much of our attention in the ‘developed’ countries on migration issues focuses on the international movement from poor countries to rich countries, the movement of poor people between poor rural hinterlands and their nearest large cities is and will be of vastly greater demographic importance.

Still, if we do just focus on international migration, Dorling suggests that poor migrants go to where wealth is concentrated, because wealth creates secondary employment markets to service it (note that this isn’t the same as saying that wealth ‘trickles down’ to the poor). Poor migrants from high fertility countries also tend to quickly assume the fertility patterns of the host society – so if global population reduction is a goal, then increased international migration from poor (and typically high fertility) countries to richer, lower fertility countries is a good way to achieve it. But if a rich society does want to reduce in-migration of people from poorer countries, a good way to achieve it is by reducing its inequalities in wealth.

Another issue is the bulging elderly population in many ‘developed’ societies as fertility crashes in the younger generations – an arguably one-off social problem which can be tackled by in-migration of young workers from poorer countries to balance temporary fertility/mortality disparities, which is often the way migration functions.

So some things to chew on there, which I’ll come back to in a later post. But where I’m generally going to go with this is probably fairly obvious – the best and most humane way of reducing in-migration in a ‘developed’ society isn’t by trying to ban it. “When migrants come,” Dorling writes, “times are generally good” (p.256). There are, perhaps, some additional complexities here, but Dorling has a point. After all, there seems to be no clamour in London to stop people migrating there from, say, Cumbria on the grounds that they’ll take jobs from Londoners. That’s not how the job market works. But if we turned to a society structured like neo-peasant Wessex, the migration picture would undoubtedly start to look different.

5. Cities

Dorling’s writing on cities seems a bit conflicted, but let me quote this:

“the worst of poverty is now found in cities, places where people can have literally nothing, not even a scrap of land. It is, perhaps, surprising we do not fear the city and our current demographic transition more” (p.202)

And also this, from Vaclav Smil’s recent book,

“another great uncertainty is the long-term viability of urban living….large parts of many of the world’s largest cities remain epitomes of violence, drug addiction, homelessness, child abandonment, prostitution and squalid living…Cities have been always renewed by migration from villages – but what will happen to the already mostly urban civilization once the villages virtually disappear while the social structure of cities continues to disintegrate?”3

Again, I hope to write more about this soon, and I’d want to question an over-simple ‘city vs. village’ dichotomy, but after spending years wading through endless, skin-deep eco-modernist paeans to the redeeming power of the slum, I find it refreshing to see some popular-academic writings telling a different story.


And that pretty much wraps up Small Farm Future for 2017. I haven’t made as much progress as I’d have liked in getting to the politics of an agrarian populist society, but I did at least get some groundwork done in outlining what such a society might look like productively and in getting a lot of global history off my chest as a kind of background to the politics. Thanks to those hardy souls who’ve ploughed through all that output. And thanks more generally to everyone who’s read and commented on this site – it’s appreciated. Hopefully, 2018 will provide opportunities to move things on. Though I do have a few side projects to attend to as well, such as building a house. Ah well, it’s good to keep busy. So happy festivities to everyone, whichever way you care to take them, and hopefully we’ll meet here again sometime in January.


  1. Dorling, D. 2013. Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive It. Constable.
  2. Daly, H. 1998. ‘Reply to Mark Sagoff’s “Carrying capacity and ecological economics”’ in Crocker, D. and Linden, T. eds. Ethics of Consumption. Rowman & Littlefield, p.55.
  3. Smil, V. 2017. Energy and Civilization: A History. MIT Press, p.437.








Campesino a campesino: a trip to Nicaragua

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doughnut economics

I didn’t intend to break my ‘History of the world’ cycle again, but the good folks of Dark Mountain have just published my review of Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a Twenty-First Century Economist. And since I’m feeling stretched a bit thin between the blogosphere and the farm, I feel the need to curate the hell out of everything I write…So I’m appending my review below (which, as if to prove my foregoing point, attentive readers of this blog may notice borrows a few sentences from an earlier blog post here). Back to the history of the world next time.

There was a bit of toing and froing with drafts of this review, which my editors felt was overly negative in tone. That bothered me a little, because I’d wanted to convey the considerable merits of Raworth’s book in my review as well as my doubts about it. Suddenly, a self-image opened up for me that I’d not much scrutinised in myself previously despite a few past scrapes, in which I figured as just another windy old nay-saying online opinionater, or perhaps the “two-bit greentard” I was once accused of being. Meanwhile, Marc Brazeau keeps sniping at me on Twitter for misrepresenting his views in this recent post, but is so caught up in the process issues around how he thinks I should have checked what I was going to say with him ahead of time that he still hasn’t actually said what the problem is. Ah well, one truth is that you can’t please everybody. And another one for me is that the world seems so replete with bad choices and impossible trade-offs too glibly resolved in contemporary thinking that maybe a bit more windy nay-saying is exactly what we need. I’d certainly apply that critique to some of my own writing as much as to Raworth’s. And I’d definitely, definitely apply it to Brazeau, from what I’ve seen of his ideas. But, memo to self, perhaps I need to stay politer while I’m about it, and be more willing to apply it to myself.

Anyway, enough of this navel-gazing. Here’s the review (expurgated version).


Book review:
Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist 
(Random House, 2017)
by Kate Raworth

I doubt many people would have betted that this year’s hot new concept for a healthy economy would be that bad food staple, the doughnut. But with the publication of Kate Raworth’s book, it’s come to pass. The idea of the ‘doughnut’ is that there is (1) a lower social limit for human flourishing, beneath which welfare is limited by shortfalls in such things as food, education and housing, and (2) an outer ecological limit for human flourishing, beyond which welfare is limited by overshoot in such things as climate change, ocean acidification and nitrogen and phosphorous loading. These two limits constitute respectively the inner and outer rings of the ‘doughnut’, the sweet spot within which humanity must try to remain. I have to confess I’m not greatly moved by the metaphor, which doesn’t seem to go much beyond the truth that individually people can have too little, and collectively they can take too much. And too much of what – is there really a conceptual equivalence between taking too much water or fossil energy, and taking too much health, as Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ diagram (p.51) seems to imply? Whatever the case, she hangs a lot of sensible and lucid analysis off the concept in a genuinely thought-provoking, if for me ultimately unsatisfactory, book.

In the first part of the book Raworth dissects orthodox economic theory, showing how it frames the world in questionable but powerful and largely hidden ways that buttress right-wing, ‘free’ market politics, while silencing other modes of thinking. She places a lot of emphasis on the way that our stories and pictures condition how we see the world, and generally puts this to good use in deconstructing the ideology of mainstream economics – for example in the notorious ‘circular flow’ diagram of Paul Samuelson, founding father of modern economics, which depicted the economy as a kind of frictionless and endless flow of value through society, like water through a closed plumbing system. This ignores the open character of the energetic and biotic systems, with their sources and sinks, to which human economies are mere accessories. Doubtless Raworth’s view that we now need to tell different stories, and draw different pictures, resonates with the Dark Mountain Project.

Raworth characterises the old story of economics as one that unconditionally celebrates markets, business, finance and trade, deprecates the state and ignores households, commons, society, the earth and power. In the new story that she wants to tell, those elements that were ignored or deprecated in the old story are brought centre stage, and old elements like markets, finance and trade are put in service of wider human flourishing, rather than assumed to be unconditionally beneficial.

If that sounds obvious or trite, Raworth nevertheless does a good job of tracing the implications in some depth, using clear, jargon-free language aimed at the non-specialist, but without sacrificing an impressive level of subtlety. It’s refreshing that she talks about power, the systematic inequalities in human/human and human/non-human relationships, something that she rightly says is generally missing in mainstream economics. But unfortunately her description of it lacks depth, and doesn’t go much further than the observation that the wealthy get to shape the economy’s rules in their favour. OK, but who are the wealthy, and how were they able to accumulate their wealth? I get the sense that Raworth operates in a rarefied world of NGO and policymaker high-ups, whose inevitably bird’s-eye and reformist view of the world inflects her book’s gentle equity talk, its judicious commitment to levelling the playing field and its pervasive emphasis on ‘design’ as the solution to contemporary problems (her 21st century economics is, for example, “distributive by design” and “regenerative by design”).

The problem, however, is not that the present global political economy is badly ‘designed’. On the contrary, it’s extremely well designed, locking the majority of the world’s population into specific political relationships which have worked because they’ve convinced sufficient numbers of the relevant people that they have a stake in the status quo. But like every past political economy, the present one will only endure for so long, until a complex of internal and external factors forces radical change – not least in the identity of the ‘relevant people’ who are invested in the status quo. In the present global political economy, the consumers and business leaders of western Europe and North America have had disproportionate ‘relevance’. But it seems likely that in the political economies to come, their relevance will wane – and this will not be a process of ‘design’ but of messy conflict, violence, compromise, happenstance and political calculation.

For sure, the economic story that Raworth wants to tell is a good one to try to feed into this febrile mix. But I don’t think it’ll have much traction without a richer analysis of how politics and power happens. My feeling is that Raworth pulls her punches in analysing the mechanics of power because otherwise she would undermine the basic premise from which her book proceeds – that political problems get solved in smoothly reformist ways by designers thinking (or storytelling, or drawing) at a whole-system level. It’s an appealing view, perhaps especially to high-level policymakers. But I’m not sure it’s a very convincing one. Maybe there’s some truth in the notion that our stories create our realities. But it’s also true that we only find the stories we want to tell out of the realities messily created in the glacial grind of human history.

In recounting her alternative economic story, Raworth freely borrows from preceding heterodox economists like Herman Daly, Tim Jackson and Ha-Joon Chang. I’m not sure she adds a great deal to what they’ve already said. So I was a bit surprised to be told on page 44 that her key concept of ‘the doughnut’ is a “radically new compass for guiding humanity” derived from “cutting-edge Earth-system science”. There’s a danger here of the ‘radically new’ story succumbing to one of the pathologies of the old, and insisting over-stridently on its novelty and originality – this year’s must-have concept, rather than just another iteration in the long-established idea of sufficiency. Ah well, there’s nothing wrong with re-presenting old ideas anew if it freshens them up for another generation of readers. But Raworth says little that Herman Daly didn’t say, and say better (if a little more technically), in his 1977 classic Steady-State Economics. In that book, Daly distinguished between the three concepts of ‘service’ (human flourishing, the final benefit of economic activity), ‘throughput’ (the entropic physical flow of resources, particularly non-renewable resources) and ‘stock’ (all the things that are moved in the economy). Perhaps Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ concept is more memorable, but it’s less precise, and it doesn’t much help elucidate the point that some things deliver more service per stock than others.

The spirit of Daly nevertheless invests the later part Raworth’s book, where she lucidly examines questions of economic growth. Advocates for the ability of the contemporary global capitalist economy to generalise wealth while mitigating environmental impacts through technical innovation make much of the evidence for the ‘decoupling’ of economic growth from resource use in the ‘developed’ economies. A good deal of this decoupling turns out to be only relative – in other words, we’re using less resources than we used to in order to deliver a given amount of product (though not necessarily ‘service’ in Daly’s terms), but economic growth is such that we’re still using more resources overall. In some cases, there does appear to be a level of absolute decoupling, ie. a lower total amount of resource use. But Raworth usefully points out that what’s really needed is sufficient absolute decoupling – that is, enough absolute decoupling to bring throughputs back within the safe bounds of her doughnut, which some analysts suggest could, for example, amount to emissions reductions in the ‘developed countries’ of around 10% per annum – vastly greater than is currently being achieved. It seems likely that the ‘developed’ economies can only reduce their resource use at too high an absolute level to stay inside the doughnut. Meanwhile, the only working model available to ‘developing’ economies is to increase their absolute resource use. Raworth succinctly spells out the resulting paradox: “No country has ever ended human deprivation without a growing economy. And no country has ever ended ecological degradation with one”.

Time, then, for another story? Well yes, but what Raworth offers is mostly just a set of stories-in-the-plural of people doing various positive things. I don’t mean to belittle them. Many of them are genuinely inspiring and uplifting, such as the case of Malawian William Kamkwamba, whose home-made wind turbines brought power to his local community. But Raworth fails to put them into a systemic framework that turns them into a story, rather than simply a collection of stories – a story of how the systemic structuring of contemporary economies and polities can be systemically restructured into something better. And inasmuch as she does have a wider framework, it’s quite a problematic one – based on the notion of both the commons and the state as helpmates to human flourishing. Her text is sprinkled with references to things like ‘the knowledge commons’, ‘the collaborative commons’ and ‘the creative commons’, but this doesn’t amount to much more than a technical-sounding gloss to the notion that people sometimes share things. Well, sure they do. And sometimes they don’t. Raworth refers to the work of Elinor Ostrom, who looked carefully at various commons as defined collective usage agreements, but she doesn’t seem to have taken on board Ostrom’s point that commons sometimes work, sometimes don’t and are only sometimes (quite rarely) the best solution to resource husbandry questions. In Raworth’s treatment, there’s a slippage from commons as ‘defined collective usage agreement’ to commons as ‘free stuff, freely shared’. Take this passage:

The triumph of the commons is certainly evident in the digital commons, which are fast turning into one of the most dynamic arenas of the global economy. It is a transformation made possible, argues the economic analyst Jeremy Rifkin, by the ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing, creating what he has called ‘the collaborative commons’….Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place, the cost of producing one extra joule of energy, one extra download, one extra 3D printed component, is close to nothing, leading Rifkin to dub it ‘the zero-marginal-cost revolution’. The result is that a growing range of products and services can be produced abundantly, nearly for free, unleashing potential such as open-source design, free online education, and distributed manufacturing (pp.83-4)

One issue that goes unexamined here is the extent to which this highly technological commons, with its solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers, is sustainable in the light of the need for a sufficiently decoupled global economy discussed above. Another is that Raworth confuses the marginal costs of circulation, which indeed in the digital age have now sometimes diminished towards zero, and the costs of creative production, which aren’t necessarily much different than pre- ‘digital commons’ times. It takes as much hard thought and hard work to put together a good curriculum, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design as it ever did. But once it’s put together, it can now be distributed almost costlessly around the world, potentially to an audience of billions. The zero-marginal-cost-revolution, if there is one, is a revolution of circulation, not production. No doubt it’s a fine thing, but it’s worth considering its major beneficiaries. Those who control the circulation are in a position to effortlessly siphon off wealth, whereas those who control the production aren’t – which is why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are a lot richer than any political essayist, poet or tractor designer, delivering a ‘collaborative commons’ based on privately owned, and possibly ‘enclosed’, means of circulation. Meanwhile, much of what really matters to people as physical, biological beings – such as staple foodstuffs and bulky construction materials – doesn’t enjoy zero marginal costs of circulation, and isn’t usually best produced via commons.

Perhaps Raworth’s wider point isn’t so much about commons in the technical sense of common-pool resource use agreements. Rather, it’s a plea to create economies geared to delivering collective human benefit and to abandon the discredited old notion that the pursuit of individual self-interest somehow delivers collective benefit through the magic of the market – a magic that, if it was ever operative, now seems to be wearing off, fooling only a diminishing band of neoliberal fundamentalists. Raworth isn’t the first person, surveying the global political economy, to think “No, not this”, but then to flounder at the question of “But, then what?”, and indeed she makes a better stab than most at answering that question. However, a more comprehensive analysis is needed of the way that economic and political power works and the complex functioning of the modern state. As it is, her prescriptions involve a rather hopeful, voluntaristic and top-down rhetoric that seems destined to go unfulfilled. Her over-emphasis on ‘design’ rather than politics discussed above is one example of this. Another is the need she identifies to “bring on the partner state” to support commons and local economic regeneration, without analysing why contemporary polities so rarely do this. It surely isn’t just a matter of them choosing the wrong story.

Maybe part of the problem is our fateful modern conviction that the stories we tell have to be upbeat and optimistic – a conviction Raworth endorses, insisting on the need to see a “glass-half-full” future (p.286). It strikes me that this may be more indicative of our problems than the solutions to them. If only we could lay aside the quintessentially capitalist trope of ‘optimism’ that sends us scurrying here and there after positive stories as a kind of pick ‘n’ mix while ignoring inconvenient negativities and acknowledge that we now face potentially insurmountable ‘wicked problems’ that need to be reckoned with rather than ‘solved’, it might be easier to harbour genuine hopes for the future. Raworth herself writes that history has repeatedly demonstrated an association between economic crisis and the rise of xenophobia, intolerance and fascism (p.277). Why insist on a glass-half-full view of the future in the light of this repeated fact? It’s surely preferable to present a sober and systematic unpicking of the mechanics of political power and economic provisioning that can clarify alternative endpoints, than to regale the reader with upbeat stories of how things may just turn out well. At its best, Raworth’s book does some good unpicking. But it still leaves us a long way from home.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, let’s get started…

1. Origins

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

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

The hypocrisy of environmentalists and the need for economic growth

Environmentalists are hypocrites, right? They condemn all sorts of behaviours like driving cars or taking plane flights in which they themselves indulge, and they want to deny poor people the right to the same luxuries by saying that the economic growth which promises to widen access to such luxuries is unsustainable.

These, frankly, are pretty dumbass criticisms, but environmentalism probably isn’t going to get far until it can somehow transcend them, and they get aired every day – not only by ignorant pub bores, but often by extremely smart people. I didn’t plan to write this post, but in the last week I’ve come across these familiar criticisms by two such smarties – the late Professor Hans Rosling, in this entertaining TED talk from 2010, and global inequality expert Professor Branko Milanovic in his brilliant, but somewhat flawed, recent book Global Inequality1, which I’ve just finished reading. Perhaps we could also throw in the Angry Chef from my previous post, who writes along similar lines that “The irony of people questioning what science has done for us whilst typing on a computer, connected to the internet via a fibre optic cable, should not be lost”. I want to address these criticisms partly because they fit neatly into the present narrative arc of this blog. But also because, rather than just trying to absolve myself as a guilty environmentalist, I want to try to turn that familiar critique on its head and go somewhere more useful with it.

The first part of the critique – the hypocrisy of personal complicity with environmental ‘bads’ – is the easiest to combat. Taking the Angry Chef’s example of computers, back in the 1980s I completed an entire university degree without once looking at a computer, whereas today I’d struggle to get through a single day without doing so. That’s not because I’ve changed, but because the world has. Of course, I could choose to take a stand and not use a computer, or a car, or aeroplanes. There’ve been times in my life when I’ve done exactly that. I passed my driving test in 1983, but didn’t actually own a car until 2007 (ironically, when I started running my ‘sustainable’ farming business). At various times and for varying durations I’ve similarly taken stands on flying, meat-eating, TV ownership etc. What difference has it made to the future of the world? Virtually none. Here we have the exact opposite of the free rider problem – let’s call it the oppressed pedestrian problem. In a ubiquitously motorised society, weigh up the personal costs of not driving against the benefits it delivers to the world at large, throw in the question of how much personal complicity affects the truth that motor vehicles are environmentally problematic, and go figure. The problem is structural, not individual. Nowadays I try to respect people who choose to avoid environmentally-negative behaviours, refrain from criticising people who don’t, and focus as best I can on what seems to me more important – the larger social structures that enable or constrain these choices.

Perhaps it’s harder to combat the second part of the critique, as articulated by Hans Rosling in his talk about the lack of access to washing machines among the majority of the world’s people – and more specifically, the majority of the world’s women. Surely, Rosling suggests, environmentalists who have access to one can’t without hypocrisy wish to deny the same access to all the world’s people? Actually it’s not so hard to combat this accusation. Do I use a washing machine? Yes. Do I wish to deny use of a washing machine to the 5 billion people in the world who don’t have access to one? No.

See, that was pretty easy. I do entertain a few caveats about Rosling’s position – the element of technological determinism involved in supposing that gender inequality is overcome by machines, the impact of the collective contexts in which people do or don’t have access to any particular technology, and the over-simplified connections he makes between labour-saving machinery, education and improved income. But, no, I think it would be great if everyone had access to a washing machine. I also think it would be great if nobody was threatened by climate change. There’s certainly a trade-off there, and I’m not persuaded by Rosling’s fond hopes for a decarbonised energy supply that can fund rich-country levels of energy use globally. But that’s another issue. For me, the main problem is that I doubt many of those billions actually will have access to a washing machine any time soon, if ever. So if it’s right to advocate for a better life for the world’s poor – and I think it is – then we need to start thinking afresh about how to do so. I want to broach that in the remainder of this post, perhaps in a rather roundabout way, by reviewing aspects of Branko Milanovic’s book.

If I had to nominate one single graph to make sense of the present human world, I think it would be the plot of relative gain in real per capita income by global income level over the last thirty years presented by Milanovic on page 11 of his book – the so-called ‘reclining S’ or ‘elephant’ graph, on account of its resemblance to said beast (you can see a version of it here). Essentially, the graph highlights four categories of people who could be termed the paired ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ from the neoliberal globalisation of the economy in recent history2. These are, first, the very richest people in the world, who’ve increased their income by nearly 70% over this period (Milanovic shows that, within this group, there’s a sub-set of super-rich ‘global plutocrats’ who’ve done even better). The second category of winners, who’ve done even better in relative terms, is what Milanovic calls the “emerging global middle class” – essentially the increasingly well-off middle-to-high earners in middle income countries experiencing fast economic growth. In practice, virtually all of these people live in China or a handful of other Asian countries. The losers are, first, the very poorest people in the world, who’ve increased their income by less than 20% (arguably it might not have increased much in the absence of globalisation, though I strongly suspect fiscal deregulation hasn’t helped their cause). And second, the poorer people in the high income countries, who while still earning more than the ‘emerging global middle class’ haven’t increased their income at all over the last 30 years, and so have fallen very much further behind the richer people in their home countries. It’s worth bearing in mind that these are relative rather than absolute figures, so they underemphasise the degree of wealth concentration that’s occurred over the period: someone on $1 a day who doubles their income has $1 a day more, while someone on $1,000 a day who doubles their income has $1,000 a day more. Indeed, 44% of the absolute income gain over the last 30 years has gone to the richest 5% of people3.

The elephant graph suggests that the world may be a slightly less unequal place than it was 30 years ago (the global Gini coefficient was 72.2 in 1988 and 70.5 in 2008) – although since inequality was at an all-time high in 1988, another way of saying this, Milanovic cautions, is that “global inequality today is at almost the highest point ever in history”4. This small reduction is almost entirely due to the rise of a hitherto ‘missing’ middle class in a handful of Asian countries such as China – which of course means that inequality within these countries has grown.

Here we have the well-known ‘Kuznets curve’, proposed by the economist Simon Kuznets in the 1950s. A country typified by ‘subsistence’ peasant agriculture will have a relatively egalitarian income distribution, but most people will be poor. As a country ‘develops’ by switching to industry, average income increases, but so does inequality. Eventually, however, inequality starts declining through worker organisation, trade unionism, state welfarism and the like. The Kuznets curve seemed to describe pretty well what happened in early-industrialising regions like Western Europe and North America until the 1980s, but the rising inequality indicated in the ‘elephant’ graph since then confounds it. Milanovic talks – not entirely convincingly, to my mind – of Kuznets ‘waves’, whereby countries like China are now going through their first Kuznets curve, while countries like the UK and the USA have started riding a second Kuznets curve. Milanovic discusses various reasons why inequality is now rising and may decline again in the future in these ‘second curve’ countries, though he doesn’t persuade me that this will necessarily happen, and I’m not sure he even persuades himself. It may be better to ditch the Kuznets hypothesis and all the talk of ‘curves’ and ‘waves’ altogether, and instead contemplate the possibility of chronic future inequality.

But let me try to apply the rather abstract results of the elephant graph to some questions of recent history and social policy. Going back to our old friends from 2016, the Brexit and Trump votes, it’s easy to see from the graph why there might have been a level of disillusionment among working-class voters in the UK and the USA about the consequences of globalisation that propelled them towards those particular ‘anti-global’ choices. Lectures about the damage those choices might wreak upon national prosperity probably didn’t wear too well with people who haven’t seen much of the prosperity come their way (obviously voting choices were a lot more complex than that, but I think that assertion is defensible – at least it puts me in the crowded company of many other wise-after-the-event commentators5).

However, the graph also suggests that looming over the shoulders of the relatively poor people in the rich countries are the relatively rich people in the poor countries (who are still poorer in absolute terms than the former, though they’re catching up). The notion that a Trump administration or Britain’s merry band of Brexiteers have either the will or the capacity to reverse the ebb of economic power away from the declining middle and working classes of the west and towards the rising middle classes of Asia seems, for numerous reasons, fanciful.

One thing that emerges strongly from Milanovic’s analysis, though he doesn’t place much emphasis on it, is how geopolitically concentrated the rise of the ‘global middle class’ is, being restricted to a handful of (admittedly very populous) Asian countries. In other words, it looks like the core-periphery structure of the global economy as described historically by world systems theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein is being replicated. What we’re seeing is less the rise of a ‘global’ middle class as the handing on of an economic leadership baton from the west to southern/eastern Asia, with other regions such as Africa and Latin America remaining more or less peripheral. Milanovic shows that prior to around 1820 what mattered most to a person’s economic life chances was their class, regardless of their nationality: it paid to be ‘well-born’, wherever you were actually born. But since then, location has mattered more than class. So for example almost anyone born in Britain is likely to have better economic life chances than almost anyone born in Zambia. There is, as Milanovic puts it, a ‘citizenship premium’ which advantages or disadvantages you largely on the basis of what passport you’re entitled to hold.

Going back to the Trump and Brexit results, one issue that loomed large in those campaigns was immigration – in the Brexit campaign, for example, around the issue of migrants from poorer East European countries undercutting the economic chances of the struggling British working class. “It’s not racist to talk about immigration” was the mantra du jour.

Well, no it’s not. But one of the things I admire most about Milanovic’s book is the clear-eyed way in which he does talk about it, and the way that in so doing he confronts the great unmentionable of economics – that is, the hypocrisy of supporting the free flow of capital around the world without supporting the free flow of labour.

Now, I got a certain amount of stick on this site around this issue a while back, for example being accused of ‘xenophobia’ for, among other things, my lack of enthusiasm for rigorous immigration control. No, me neither. But anyway, I’m completely with Milanovic on this one. Poorer people in richer countries can make a sound ethical argument for a fairer national distribution of income. Poorer people in poorer countries can make a sound ethical argument for a fairer international distribution of income – but if that’s not going to happen, which seems likely, then they can make a sound ethical argument in favour of migrating somewhere they can earn more. If people in richer countries think migration of that sort is unacceptable, then how can it be acceptable for the (relative) ‘have nots’ in a given rich country to expect redistribution from the ‘haves’?

I can’t see an ethical answer to that question. And indeed the only affirmative answers I’ve seen to it are pretty avowedly non-ethical and implicitly nationalist: it’s OK for poor people in rich countries to expect a better deal from their richer co-nationals, but not OK for poor people in poor countries to expect a better deal from richer foreigners. Situations of ubiquitous economic growth tend to keep such questions at bay, because things don’t seem so bad if everyone is getting richer, even if some are a lot richer than others. But in a likely future of chronically low and maldistributed growth, these distributional conflicts are only going to sharpen. Arguments against global migration from poor to rich countries are ultimately winner takes all or might is right arguments. Such arguments have an obvious appeal to the currently mighty (in which category, globally, almost everyone in a country like the UK fits), but they tend to lose their lustre if the mighty should fall (in which category, looking at Milanovic’s analysis, the UK might well fit in the future). Be careful what you wish for (Milanovic has some ‘compromise’ suggestions for dealing with global migration which strike me as quite sensible – perhaps I’ll look at these in more detail another time).

No doubt the ethical notion that people should cede current riches to the less well-off seems ludicrously idealistic, although it’s a commonplace nowadays to consider other ethical systems, such as those of foraging nomads, where the idea that you should take the lion’s share for yourself and let others go hungry simply because you can is absolute anathema – a sensible strategy, the anthropologists tell us, in uncertain times when you never know who’ll next be sated and who’ll be hungry. Perhaps that’s worth pondering as we confront an uncertain collective global future. As ever, ‘idealism’ is contextual – to me, the ‘obvious’ strategy proposed by my critics of clamping down on new or recent migrants is only obvious in the context of a certain modern mindset that’s best transcended.

Still, that mindset is deeply grounded in our politics, which has rarely been about ethics, except perhaps occasionally in recent times with the thinnest veneer of liberal internationalism. Generally, it’s been about power. I can’t see the rich world willingly giving up its advantages – so I suspect it will yield them slowly and unwillingly. I foresee a future of intense distributional conflict and quite probably war. If that happens, I hope those who’ve justified the current turn of western politics on distributional grounds (like John Michael Greer…) will keep quiet rather than trying to find non-distributional arguments to justify the status quo ante.

Are there any alternatives to this grim scenario? Well, possibly – but Milanovic isn’t much help in locating them. Despite his economic heterodoxy, he returns to the mainstream fold on the question of economic growth, ridiculing the idea of degrowth as a hypocritical fancy of rich westerners and arguing – albeit with the historical evidence in his favour – that economic growth is much the most powerful tool yet found for improving the lives of ordinary people in poor countries. He adds,

““Deglobalization” with a return to the “local” is impossible because it would do away with the division of labor, a key factor of economic growth. Surely, those who argue for localism do not wish to propose a major drop in living standards or a Khmer Rouge solution to inequality”6

Well, speaking personally I’d say certainly not the latter but possibly the former – especially if the drop in living standards falls mainly on the current rich, as Milanovic himself prescribes. One of the problems with his analysis is the rather crude way he contrasts industrial societies with pre-industrial ones as ‘subsistence’ societies, and uses fiscal income interchangeably with ‘living standards’. I don’t want to succumb to too starry-eyed a version of pre-industrial society, but the pre-industrial Britain of the 18th century, for example, was not a ‘subsistence society’ and there are some things that money can’t buy – indeed, there are some things that the pervasive marketization prompted by rising national incomes may jeopardise. This was true in early 17th century northeast England, for example, which experienced the last clearly documented famine in the country – one that afflicted not ‘subsistence’ peasants, but commercial livestock farmers suffering a market crash that made them too poor to afford grain7. Similar pressures afflict poor cash-crop farmers today8. I’m not altogether against the idea of the rural poor quitting peasant farming for something that pays better, but it’s a risky business. Despite the blandishments of ecomodernists and well-paid university professors, the fact is that many of the rural poor keep a foot in subsistence production as a risk-insurance strategy. I don’t think you have to side with the Khmer Rouge to argue that it sometimes ‘pays’ not to seek higher incomes above all else.

Milanovic nicely points out how bad social scientists, including economists, have been at predicting the future, serially succumbing to the fateful temptation to project short-run current trends as long-term structures. But let me put my cards on the table – I think it would be a good idea if people in the rich countries had lower living standards, and people in the poor countries had higher ones. I can’t exactly see how this will happen on the basis of current economic realities, but I’ll conjure with a scenario where those current realities are breaking down.

This involves chronic economic stagnation and debt in western countries of the kind analysed by political economists like Wolfgang Streeck9, the continuing leakage of economic power to Asia and the curveball (or perhaps googly, to use a more Anglocentric metaphor) of climate change and energy crisis renting the fabric of the global economy. In those circumstances, I think a lot of rural peasant cultivators globally will suffer, but so will a lot of urban merchant bankers in the west, and the balance may tip away from the latter and towards the former a little – perhaps to the extent that being a rural peasant cultivator in a country like England starts to seem less crazy than it presently does.

Let me run with that scenario a little further. Suppose that a post-Brexit Britain manages to control its borders, experiences the huge economic slump that obviously awaits it and, in a moment of clarity, sees that its problems aren’t fundamentally the fault of immigrants, the EU, or the Chinese, and that the solutions aren’t to be found in humbling itself before an uncaring global economy. Milanovic writes,

“An interesting question to ask is what might happen if the growth rate decelerated and fell to zero, and the economy became stagnant, but at a much higher level of income than in stagnant preindustrial economies. It is not inconceivable that Kuznets cycles would continue to take place against the background of an unchanging mean income, producing a picture similar to the one we have for pre-industrial economies”10

…which is one of wildly gyrating inequality in response to exogenous shocks. But a conceivable alternative might be what’s termed a ‘high level equilibrium trap’ which I’ll be looking at in future posts – a stable, efficient, dynamic but stagnant economy in which the primary asset is human labour. Managed well, I think this could be the best kind of economy for steering our way equitably, sustainably and resiliently through the future shocks awaiting us. ‘Managing it well’ would involve an attentiveness to resilience rather than to economic growth, an opposition to extremes of wealth accumulation, and a focus on sustainable, labour-intensive local industries. Like peasant farming, for example. I’m not sure it’s an especially likely future outcome. But it’s a possible one, and it’s better than most of the alternatives, which seem to me to cluster around the two possibilities of ecomodernist fantasy-land or internecine nationalist-mercantilist conflict.

But let me round off by returning to Professor Rosling and his washing machines. As I’ve said, the good professor was right that nobody who has access to a washing machine really ought to lecture those who don’t about what consumer items they can or can’t have. But I doubt for all that that what Rosling calls ‘the washing line’ – the level of income at which people can afford a washing machine – is going to encompass a great many more of the world’s people than it presently does, or that the global energy supply will be able to decarbonise at anything like the levels which would be required to greatly lower the washing line while avoiding runaway climate change. I also doubt that the benefits of the washing machine he outlines that accrued to the lucky earlier generations of technology-adopters such as his mother in Sweden – an education instead of hard domestic work, bringing rising income within reach – is going to work the same way for would-be washing machine owners of the future. There are just too many well-educated people chasing too few jobs in an increasingly dysfunctional and stagnant economy. As Milanovic puts it, the difference in skills and abilities between high and low earners in the future is likely to be increasingly small – the main difference being chance and family background11, not washing machines and education.

Another way of putting all this is that economic growth, education and technological development as means of improving the human lot are old stories that are probably going to work less well in the future. Like the ‘science’ discussed in my last post, they’re not bad things in themselves, but if people pin inordinate hopes on them as vehicles for future human betterment I think, increasingly, they’ll be disappointed. Environmentalists have been saying these things for years. However many washing machines or plane flights they personally enjoy, that doesn’t make them wrong. It’s time we started thinking structurally, and stopped shooting the messenger.


  1. Branko Milanovic. 2016. Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. Harvard University Press.
  1. Though there are some difficulties of interpretation here, highlighted in this critique by Caroline Freund which I only came across as I prepared to publish this post. I’ll have to think about this some more – there are aspects of her argument I don’t find convincing, but some of her points are quite telling.
  1. Milanovic, p.24.
  1. Milanovic, p.253.
  1. Though, once again, the Freund critique puts a different spin on the figures, reverting us to another familiar response to the Brexit and Trump results – an inexplicable desire for economic self-harm, which in some ways is quite encouraging for my general thesis here.
  1. Milanovic, p.192.
  1. Mark Overton. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England. Cambridge University Press, p.141.
  1. Peter Robbins. 2003. Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster. Zed.
  1. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.
  1. Milanovic, p.58.
  1. Milanovic, p.215.

Nine futures

Everybody needs to unwind with a bit of escapist reading from time to time and, like many people I’m sure, one of my favoured genres in this respect recently has been treatises of left-wing futurology. I’m thinking, for example, of titles like Inventing the Future, How Will Capitalism End?, Alternatives to Capitalism and Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts1. I’ve found all of these books (with one exception, which I’d guess should be obvious from its title) to be interesting and thought-provoking, even if I don’t find myself fundamentally in agreement with them. Another one I’ve read recently, one of the best of the bunch, is Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism2.

My aim in this post is to use Frase’s book as a cue to discuss some issues of interest to me, rather than reviewing or précising it as such – but I’d certainly recommend taking a look at it. Like many left-futurologists, Frase in my opinion gets a little too excited about the prospect of an automated and jobless future (one of the features of the genre is that you have to mention 3D printing, driverless cars or biomimicry on virtually every page as some kind of avatar of future abundance), but at least the insights he generates from these new-old chestnuts are subtler than most. Frase proposes a 2×2 matrix of future scenarios across the dualities of abundance/scarcity (which he links to the play of ecological outcomes like climate change and resource depletion) and equality/hierarchy (which he links to the outcome of class conflicts over the distribution of resources). It’s a simple device – perhaps an over-simple one – but a useful one. I wish I’d thought of it myself…

Frase fills this matrix with the ‘four futures’ of his title thus:


Abundance Scarcity
Equality Communism Socialism
Hierarchy Rentism Exterminism

In case these concepts aren’t clear I’d precis his ‘communism’ as an egalitarian, leisured world of technologically-undergirded jobless plenty, ‘rentism’ as a capitalism-max, competitive world of endless commodification, ‘socialism’ as a world of egalitarian shared labour to wrest a livelihood from a damaged nature, and ‘exterminism’ as a world in which an impoverished working class whose labour has become superfluous as a result of automation is subjected to increasingly militarised control, and ultimately to extirpation (a process that Frase already detects among other things in the paramilitary police disciplining of African-American youth in the USA). It’s an interesting point inasmuch as discussions of future constraint or collapse often omit class and converge around a kind of Mad Max scenario involving a war of all against all. More likely indeed is intensifying resource competition between rich and poor, with the odds strongly favouring the former.

Frase writes interestingly about all these scenarios – and about how one might bleed into another – raising a host of issues that I hadn’t thought much about, if at all. But, as ever, I want to focus on a couple of points where I disagree with him rather than the many where I agree, if only because they help me develop my larger theme. So, Frase writes “Freedom begins where work ends – the realm of freedom is after hours, on the weekend, on vacation and not at work”3. That’s certainly a familiar story we tell ourselves, but psychological research suggests it’s not necessarily true4: people often rate their feelings of wellbeing higher at work than at play – maybe not so surprising when you consider that at work people are often engaged positively with other people in order to achieve complex ends, which is kind of what humans are evolved to do. Whereas at leisure they’re often kicking around on their own among the alienating appurtenances of contemporary consumer culture, thinking “God, I’m supposed to be having fun – is this really what life’s about?”

Let me leave that thought hanging for a moment, and come on to a second point of disagreement. Frase critiques the ‘nature worshipping’ school of ecological thought, which holds that human actions are wrecking nature, on the grounds that humans are a part of nature – and that nature in any case is never ‘in balance’ but is always profoundly dynamic5. I won’t argue with that, but I’d dispute the merit of turning it into a duality that forces us to choose between ‘nature worship’ or ‘anything goes’. This leads to false choices. For example, Frase talks about the ‘mysterious phenomenon’ of bee colony collapse disorder in the USA, and suggests that one solution might be to manufacture pollinating ‘RoboBee’ micro-machines, concluding “there seems little choice at this stage to deepen our engagement with nature” and that we must “embrace our monsters” (ie. accept that there will be unintended consequences of human actions in the world6). Quite so – but we can deepen our engagement with nature in numerous ways, including by increasing the input of human labour into agriculture (people enjoy working, remember) and de-intensifying the production methods that are prompting colony collapse and other troubling symptoms of over-reach. To do so wouldn’t involve ‘nature worship’ – it would still be a managed human agroecosystem – but it would represent one point on the wide spectrum between sublimating ourselves within nature and assuming total control of it which is effaced in Frase’s bald dichotomy.

It strikes me that with this sort of thing it would help if we started thinking more hierarchically – ‘hierarchically’ not in the everyday sense of the term as rank ordering, like a football league table, but in the more technical sense of a Venn diagram, of parts encompassed by wholes without any necessary rank ordering. So, as indicated in the diagram below, it becomes possible to see that from the human perspective (H) there’s a distinction between the human and the natural, whereas from the perspective of nature (N), there is no such distinction (by the way, the relative size of ‘nature’ vis-à-vis the ‘human’ in the box isn’t intended to indicate their respective importance – it’s more an indicator of my incompetence with software). But it’s doubtful that there’s such a thing as ‘the perspective of nature’, so H and N are really just different manifestations of self-conscious, human theories of being. The natural implies the human and vice versa. It makes as much sense to debate the autonomy of one against the other as the autonomy of up from down.

nature-humanI’d apply the same logic to the way we think about human life as an individual or collective property. Despite a long and bizarre philosophical tradition of social contract theory based around the notion that each person is a sovereign individual who ‘contracts in’ to society, this is clearly not the case. There are aspects of being human that are ineluctably individual (I) and others that are ineluctably social (S), but individualism is contained within sociality: a complete individualism, like a private language, is an impossibility. However, I think it’s reasonable to say there can be different political styles that place greater emphasis on individualism or sociality. Through most of my life, I’ve been suspicious of individualism in politics, because far too often I see it as a right-wing tactic (ab)used by soi disant ‘self-made men’ who weren’t, in fact, made by their selves, but who use the ideology of individualism to kick away the social supports giving succour to other people who are less systemically advantaged.


But for all that, I think there’s something alive in notions of individuality, autonomy or self-realisation that can’t be negated by truisms about the social nature of humankind. I guess I could try to establish the point with a general argument, but maybe I’ll just make it personal. So – one of the reasons I quit academia and tried to make my way as some kind of farmer was a growing sense of the soullessness of a life spent indoors living off the backs of others, and a diminishing self-respect as my ignorance and inability to create even a semblance of my own material subsistence began to dawn on me. Perhaps you could say that those are just my own issues, magnified through the lens of a culture that vaunts the Robinson Crusoe myth of individualism. Maybe so, though I think people wrestle with issues of self-realisation in every culture, and what interests me in any case is how to deal authentically in the currency of my own. Doubtless there are people who do manage to achieve self-realisation through our contemporary consumer culture – the anthropologist Danny Miller has built virtually his whole career around articulating this point, which is a good one…though it strikes me as something of a rearguard defence7. Consider the multitudes who longingly seek a small patch of city ground to garden, who get busy individualizing and improving their homes, or fixing up their cars – even those who follow any number of crazy adventure sports, or pursue authenticity through cuisine or mindful letting go (a recent list of the UK’s non-fiction bestsellers was split about 50:50 between cookery and how-to-be-happy books). It seems to me that the big story of global capitalist development over the past few centuries is the power of humanity collectively to create vast material flows, mostly to the benefit of a minority. And the story that’s scribbled in its margins, desperate to be told, is how much we yearn for an autonomy or self-realisation that the big story, for all its undeniable successes, can’t give.

So to get to my point, I’d like to suggest a third duality to add to Frase’s equality-hierarchy and scarcity-abundance dualities – collective vs. self-realising. I’d like to hedge it with lots of caveats about the social nature of self-realisation, and I’d also like to acknowledge that the distinction poses further questions. What is the ‘collective’ we’re talking about here? The state? Or some other (perhaps more than one?) basis of collective human identity? What does human self-realisation look like? Who is the ‘self’? And where might it go to get its realisation? One answer I’d give to the latter question, predictably perhaps, is that the self could do worse than working with a small number of other known people to transform or ‘humanise’ nature on labour-intensive, low tech small-scale farms.

But let me try to put the ‘self-realising vs collective’ duality to work in terms of wider political ideologies. Below I’ve split out Frase’s 2×2 matrix into an 8-cell matrix across my additional duality. I wouldn’t claim that the eight (well, actually nine – I’ve cheated) possible futures thus generated fit unambiguously into their respective boxes with no complexities or overlaps, but it does seem to me that the expanded table generates some points of interest.


Abundance Scarcity
Equality Collective Communism Socialism
Self-realising Anarchism Agrarian populism
Hierarchy Collective Social democracy Fascism – Feudalism
Self-realising Rentism Exterminism

Just to expand briefly on the new futures I’ve sketched (Frase’s original four are in italics) I’d say that anarchists don’t have to believe in technologically-driven abundance, but it helps. In this respect, Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism8, with its upbeat 1960s take on technological liberation, set the tone for much contemporary anarchist thought. Most of the anarchists I’ve come across (and not a few non-anarchists too) take the view that scarcity is imposed artificially by a self-interested, hierarchical, centralising state. I think they’ve got a point, but on the basis of my travails on the farm I’d say that anarchists can be wont to overstate the eagerness of Mother Nature to render her gifts unto humankind. And when they get down to work on the farm, it strikes me that things like property rights and questions of desert start looming larger than is usually allowed for in the parent doctrine. I’d acknowledge, though, that my comments here only scratch the surface of the anarchist tradition, to which I’m quite sympathetic overall.

Frase’s ‘rentism’ looks pretty much like the terminal logic of capitalism in its contemporary neoliberal guise, in which any collective notion of human wellbeing (trade unions, the human right to food etc.) is dismissed as a market distortion. It strikes me that this extreme individualism of present times represents a collective delusion which, if left unchecked, undermines its own conditions of possibility. In practice, it isn’t left unchecked – even the most enthusiastically neoliberal of regimes nowadays finds it necessary to intervene in private markets in numerous ways in order to secure human wellbeing (and indeed in order to secure private markets themselves, which would fold in short order without government sponsorship). But without straying beyond a commitment to capitalist private enterprise, there’s a spectrum of possibilities from the extreme individualism of rentism (everything, everybody and everywhere is commodifiable) to a more collective, social democratic sense that managed private markets serve human flourishing. A good deal of contemporary writing – pretty much the entire corpus of ecomodernism, for example – effaces the distinction, but a politics that makes human flourishing an end is different in principle to one that makes rentism an end. Unfortunately, in practice the dalliance of social democracy with the animal spirits of the market gives it few defences against a slide into rentism.

Fascism is a curious amalgam of most of the other political ideologies on show, but it seems to me that it’s at its strongest in situations of scarcity and social stress. There is no place at all within it for personal autonomy or self-realisation. ‘The leader’, ‘the party’, ‘the state’, ‘the people’ and the ‘nation’ are indissolubly fused in fascist ideology. But in practice such a fusion is impossible, which is why fascism has affinities with exterminism: the only way to reconcile its extremist ideology of pure corporate collective identity with plural social and individual worlds is to try to eliminate the pluralism.

I’ve listed feudalism (for want of a more accurate shorthand) in the same box as fascism because when the tortuous contradictions involved in the attempt of fascism to reconcile equality with hierarchy through recourse to ideas of corporate identity have exhausted themselves, what’s left in situations of resource scarcity is a more thoroughgoing sense of inequality: the few are born to rule, while the many are born to serve. This doctrine is collective inasmuch as it attaches rights and responsibilities to the respective castes in service of a wider sense of social order. It isn’t just a free for all. I’ll have a fair bit more to say about this in future posts, so for now I’ll just remark that this is quite an obvious way to go in situations of scarcity, but not an especially satisfactory one if you happen to be born among the many.

Finally, agrarian populism fits in the equality–scarcity–self-realisation box. In an agrarian populist society a large number of people are small-scale farmers (‘family farmers’, if you will) or artisans supporting the agrarian economy. So self-realisation is local and to a considerable extent individual/familial/household-based (more questions elided right there, I acknowledge) and geared to self-subsistence. The situation demands broad equality of entitlement to land and other productive resources, otherwise the populace ceases to be agrarian and we move towards more collective solutions. But, of course, in order to secure the equality, some kind of state or collective agency is required. This is the political contradiction at the heart of agrarian populism, which I mention here as an agrarian populist myself to highlight the fact that it’s not a panacea or an easy solution. It’s just that the solutions offered by the other doctrines seem yet more implausible and contradictory. I’d argue that agrarian populism fits within the ‘scarcity’ box for similar reasons to those that prompted our much-esteemed prime minister to remark recently that money doesn’t grow on trees (despite the fact that she seems to have magicked up this very week a cool £1 billion for Northern Ireland to keep herself in No.10). Just as money doesn’t grow on trees, the same is true with the fruit of the land. Well, OK, that’s not entirely true – some fruit does in fact grow on trees. But not much of it without appropriate breeding, grafting, fertilising, pruning and picking, using the scarce resources of land, energy, fertility and human labour.

So to summarise, the world of agrarian populism is one that seeks abundance-in-scarcity, and this is the trail I want to follow. Which leads me to a final point of divergence with Frase, who writes of a recurrent capitalist dynamic where,

“as workers become more powerful and better paid, the pressure on capitalists to automate increases. When there is a huge pool of low wage migrant farm labor, a $100,000 fruit picker looks like a wasteful indulgence. But when workers are scarce and can command better wages, the incentive to replace them with machinery is intensified”9

Not much to quarrel with there as historical retrospective – apart from the argument that the incentive to automate may sometimes stem more from the urge to make workers less powerful and more poorly paid10. But there are numerous ecological and economic reasons to think that, when projected into the future, this capitalist dynamic has an endpoint. After that occurs, it seems likely that hired labour, energy and machinery will all be expensive, so to the average farmer both migrant farm labour and $100,000 fruit pickers will then seem a wasteful indulgence. What commends itself in that scenario is the agrarian populism of the ‘middle peasant’, who’d most likely pick the fruit themselves, and then eat it.


  1. Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex. 2015. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso; Streeck, Wolfgang. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso; Hahnel, Robin and Olin Wright, Erik. 2016. Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy. London: Verso; Phillips, Leigh. 2015. Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Alresford: Zero Books.
  1. Frase, Peter. 2016. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. London: Verso.
  1. Ibid. p.40.
  1. Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.
  1. Frase op cit. pp.101-6.
  1. Ibid. p.106.
  1. eg. Miller, Daniel. 2012. Consumption and its Consequences. Cambridge: Polity.
  1. Bookchin, Murray. 1971. Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Black Rose.
  1. Frase op cit. p.8.
  1. Eg. Malm, Andreas. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London: Verso.