From the arable corner to the recaptured garden

I discuss the idea that humanity has boxed itself into what I call the ‘arable corner’ in Chapter 5 of A Small Farm Future, and in this post I’m going to draw out some implications of that discussion.

The idea behind the ‘arable corner’ (perhaps I should have called it the ‘grain corner’) is that we’ve become over-reliant on a handful of arable/grain crops – 75% of global cropland is devoted to just ten crops, of which six are cereals and two grain legumes. And now it seems like we’re boxed in, because it’s hard to discern how to wean ourselves off them.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these crops. One reason we grow them in such abundance is that they meet our needs so well. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Boxing ourselves into the arable corner isn’t great for human health, for livestock health, for ecosystem integrity or for socio-political wellbeing, as I document in Chapter 5. Here, I’ll reflect briefly on how we got into this mess, and how we might escape it.

Our key arable crops are all pretty much short-lived annuals, quickly producing seeds that pack a heavy punch of energy and protein to help the next generation get started – and it’s upon this inter-generational generosity in the plant tribe that humanity has built its civilizations. As I wrote a while back, were it not for this ecological quirk, we probably wouldn’t be facing many of our present intractable problems.

Some of these problems stem precisely from the annual habit of our arable crops, so one approach to solving them – on which I’ve previously written, and discuss a little in my book – is attempting to perennialize these crops. I’m not convinced this will work biologically. And if it does, I’m not convinced it’ll get us out of our socioeconomic predicaments. Nor do I fully understand why it’s presented as a more ‘natural’ way of farming compared with, say, breeding annual grains for fast, high yield, which is much more consonant with their life history. But I’m all in favour of experimentation – I just don’t think the perennializing folks should call the adoption of annual crops a ‘mistake’ in human history, as they sometimes do.

Going way back, perhaps even beyond the origins of Homo sapiens, people have understood that early successional ecosystems involving habitat disturbance and high plant nutrification are propitious environments for human provisioning, and they found numerous ingenious ways to push things in that direction. The swiddening that I mentioned in my last post is but one example. I think these are better regarded as elegant solutions to people’s contemporary problems rather than ‘mistakes’ – but it nevertheless seems unlikely that we’ll solve today’s problems in the same way, by doubling down on habitat disturbance and nutrification.

So if I’m proposing neither annual arable as usual nor perennial arable as an alternative, then what? I’ll come to that in a moment. But first I want to sketch a little social history around the arable corner. The old-time orthodoxy of the human turn to farming was that nomadic hunter-gatherers figured out how to sow and resow cereals, then settled down into sedentary villages to grow them, producing such a surplus of food and therefore people that occupational specialization became possible, and thence quickly thereafter the emergence of complex states that kickstarted humanity on its journey to all the benefits of modern civilization.

But newer scholarship as outlined by James Scott in his book Against The Grain suggests that much of this is wrong. Sedentism preceded grain domestication, which was only one of several flexible strategies of self-provisioning along the continuum of foraging and farming that stretches much further back into the human past than the putative ‘origins’ of agriculture within roughly the last 10,000 years. And grain domestication predated the emergence of complex states by several millennia. When complex grain-based states did emerge, the ordinary people commanded by them were generally worse off – worse off in their nutrition and health status, and worse off in their susceptibility to violence, economic exploitation and enslavement.

It’s true that by the time the early states got going, alternative games were almost up – population pressure and declining options for foraging impelled people towards arable, as per the old orthodoxy. But in the hands of Scott and similar authors this can be rendered as a tale of loss, not progress: “planting and livestock rearing as dominant subsistence practices were avoided for as long as possible because of the work they required. And most of the work arose from the need to defend a simplified, artificial landscape from the resurgence of nature excluded from it: other plants (weeds), birds, grazing animals, rodents, insects and the rust and fungal infections that threatened a monocropped field”1.

Scott argues that the architects of the early states such as Sumer were able to capture or ‘parasitize’ this arable sedentism, making its farmers the subject citizens of their hierarchical apparatus. Initially this required various forms of direct coercion to prevent people fleeing from drudgery and subjection but when population pressure on land passes a critical point, direct coercion can turn economic or legalistic, merely depriving the working class of the right to be independent cultivators.

The main counterviews to such negative appraisals of central state power within our modern system of states turn on either amplifying the productivity or mitigating the inequality orchestrated by the state, or both, so that even the humblest citizen might live like the kings of the past. But I think the jury is now in on this. Amplifying productivity has generated deep ecological problems. Inequalities remain stark and stubborn, and the most thorough attempts to remedy them have failed to endure and have involved numerous coercions of their own.

So maybe it’s worth looking for answers elsewhere. To my mind, a key hunting ground raised in Scott’s account is those long millennia of sedentary mixed cereal cultivation preceding the emergence of centralized states. Likewise, it seems there were long periods in British history of mixed sedentary cultivation during the Neolithic without state centralization. Even more interestingly in the British case, this was succeeded by greater status differentiation and centralization in the early Bronze Age, before reversion to more dissipated household-based organization thereafter2. There are similar examples from many other parts of the world – although predatory would-be states were often waiting in the wings in many of these cases, and were sometimes able to strike when conditions favoured them. But they didn’t necessarily endure, and what I find especially tantalizing in these examples is that there seemed to be supra-local political organization without centralized statehood.

And this is essentially the approach that I think commends itself today, partly by force of circumstance and partly by choice. Growing annual grains locally, predominantly on garden scales, along with a wide range of other annual and perennial, dryland and aquatic food and fibre crops in small-scale guilds that limit the ecological destructiveness of any one crop. Likewise growing mixed political institutions locally that limit the sociological destructiveness of the monocrop central state – but nevertheless actively growing those institutions, rather than assuming an inherent human ability towards anarchist or collectivist concord.

This links to another phrase I coin in my book – the recaptured garden. Elites and centralized states have often creamed off as much surplus as they possibly can from ordinary people – and one way they’ve maximized the return is by making ordinary people responsible for their own welfare, not least by making them grow their own food. Historian Steven Stoll calls this the ‘captured garden’3. Again, a modernist response is that people shouldn’t have to do this. Specialist farmers should release us from this captivity by growing our food for us, and governments should ensure that everybody has a tolerable income to pay for the necessities of life. Ask an average farmer or an ex-farming slum dweller in an average country of the modern world about their income and see how well that’s going.

I argue instead for reclaiming or recapturing the garden for ourselves. Globally, governments have at best a patchy record for freeing people from economic misery, and to this day a lot of people try to hang on to small patches of land as a risk-spreading strategy in the face of state hostility or indifference. Again, partly through force of circumstance and partly through choice I think people will need to press harder upon this recapturing, because governments will be increasingly unable to offer alternatives.

So, to escape the arable corner, the forms of state coercion associated with it and the ecological problems it creates I argue that our best chance is by becoming our own arable farmers, or rather mixed-arable gardeners, and by recapturing our gardens and the politics of our households from centralized states. I hope to fill out some of the details of this in future posts.

Notes

  1. James Scott. 2017. Against the Grain, p.96.
  2. Francis Pryor. 2014. Home.
  3. Steven Stoll. 2017. Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia.

Swidden as politics

I’m now turning to Part II of my book – ‘Small Farm Ecology’ – in my present blog cycle about A Small Farm Future. So far, this has been the part that’s prompted least comment, except for a few asides along the lines of ‘yeah well, everyone knows that small-scale agroecological localism is the best way forward’. Perhaps that’s a good sign, and the path ahead is less crooked than I’d thought. Or maybe I just move in small circles.

Whatever the case, there are still some issues from this part of the book that I’d like to explore in further detail in my next few posts. I begin Part II by discussing the ecology of agriculture which, I argue, is pretty similar whether we’re talking about mainstream, so-called ‘conventional’ agriculture or alternative, so-called ‘ecological’ agriculture. In both cases, humans push the land productivity envelope, essentially through habitat disturbance and nutrification that supports high-yielding, early successional crop plants – the (somewhat questionable) upside of this being easy calories (and other nutrients – but mostly calories) for us, the downsides being the destruction of wild habitats and more work for people to do (or possibly for their machines or for other people that they subordinate).

There are ways we can try to remediate these trade-offs, but on a planet inhabited for the foreseeable future with multiple billions of people I don’t think there are any magic bullet ways to overcome it so that we can simultaneously feed ourselves, go easy on the farm work and make room for all our fellow organisms. But what we can do is look at long-established agricultural systems for inspiration as to how it’s possible to manage human nutrition, labour input and habitat integrity in the long term. And I would emphasise that it’s inspiration and not replication that I’m talking about, because the issues we’re facing today aren’t necessarily the same as the ones facing the architects of those older systems.

One such system is swidden (‘slash and burn’) farming, which we were discussing here recently in relation to Scandinavian examples but is better known as a practice of ‘subsistence’ cultivators in tropical forests. Swidden is a long-fallow system in which trees in a patch of woodland are felled and burned, crops are grown for some years in the resulting fertile soil, and then the patch is left for many more years to revert to secondary forest before the cycle is repeated. Academic scholarship historically viewed swidden as a destructive and ‘primitive’ practice – kind of a step up from hunting and foraging, but still ‘backward’ compared to more intensive field agriculture.

This view has been re-evaluated more recently, with classic swidden revealed as an eminently sustainable and ecologically subtle practice (I say ‘classic’ swidden to distinguish it from the contemporary practice of newcomers in forest areas burning trees to establish new field systems under the impress of external pressures – also confusingly called swidden sometimes, and much less sustainable). The re-evaluation has called into question the evolutionary mentality of the earlier scholarship, where the presentation of foraging, swidden, field system farming and mechanized farming as a sequence unfurling through time represented another misleading legacy of the modernist-progressivist mindset that still mars so much contemporary thought in its concern with how we must move ‘forwards’ in technological intensity and never ‘look back’.

Instead, the newer thinking about swidden presents it not as an activity frozen in past time but as an active choice made by its practitioners in their contemporary circumstances, for various reasons.  Sometimes these are to do with optimizing labour inputs and crop outputs, which is worth bearing in mind on both sides of the debate about biomimicry in agriculture when people say things like “no one is fertilizing the rainforest”. In fact, people kind of are, or at least parts of it, and have long coaxed a subtle productivity from it through long-term human management, albeit without negating the aforementioned ecological truth that food output requires work input.

But the choice of swidden that interests me most for my present purposes is when it’s adopted as a way to avoid being caught in a political net of constant productivity gain and, ultimately, state centralization and ‘modernization’. So swiddeners aren’t necessarily ‘backward’ people who failed to ‘develop’ (those modernist-progressivist metaphors again). Sometimes they’re people with a pretty good idea what progress and development involve, and have chosen to avoid it.

Swidden itself is a practice that only works in specific biomes and within specific human ecologies. In southern England where I live it would be a really bad idea nowadays to try to burn down woodlands as a prelude to growing crops – and the trees wouldn’t burn anyway. But I still think it’s worth seeking inspiration from swidden, not necessarily as agronomy but as politics, specifically as a politics of autonomy. So for those of us who live in rural areas, it’s an interesting exercise to imagine what would be happening in our localities and how different the farming might look like if we were cultivating most of our livelihoods from the local landscape. Actually, it’s an even more interesting exercise for those of us who don’t live in rural areas.

Generally, the answer will be that instead of no crops or very few, there would be many, all eminently suited to the locality and to people’s needs within it – and there would probably be more heavily-managed tree crops in most places, making landscapes a little more swidden-like. In a sense, Part II of my book merely extrapolates this general point. In such a scenario, there would be many things we’re now accustomed to that we’d have to do without, or at least have less of. But some of them might be quite welcome: less political domination, less coercive labour markets.

One of the advantages of swidden as a politics of autonomy in places where it’s ecologically possible to practice it is that people living semi-transiently in dense and extensive woodland regions usually have many options for evading the exercise of state power, whereas somebody living as I do on a field on the edge of a market town in southern England doesn’t (perhaps the seven acres of woodland we planted when we first got onto the site was an act of subconscious desperation in this respect – though in fact even the limited privacy it’s afforded has been useful in numerous ways).

But that last sentence needs qualification. I argue in Part IV of my book that many of the world’s present centralized states may of necessity be withdrawing the flow of goods and welfare that they presently orchestrate across their entire territories. This could unfold in some troubling ways, but Part II of the book is kind of the happy interlude where I show that, in theory at least, it’s eminently possible for people to provide a satisfactory welfare for themselves locally. In the next few posts I’ll expand on this.

Can the peasant speak?

I’ve now reached Chapter 3, ‘The return of the peasant’, in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future, and I’m going to linger here for a few posts, even though it’s only a short chapter. I’ll begin at rather an oblique slant to the substance of the chapter by relating a story told to me by my friend P, reproduced here with his kind permission.

This photograph is of P’s grandfather, G, who was born in the province of Karelia, Eastern Finland, in 1889. At this time, Finland was an autonomous duchy of the Russian empire, and Russian Orthodox Christianity was prominent in Eastern Karelia. G’s ancestry in the immediate locality where he was born went back at least three generations, probably more. The subsistence-oriented swidden farming which we were recently discussing here (later transplanted to Appalachia by Scandinavian migrants) was a recent reality in this area. As P puts it, “this was a man whose roots were deep in the place that he came from. His cultural and farming practices were also deeply rooted in this landscape”.

G was the oldest of six children. When his father died in 1911 it fell to him to sort out the inheritance and allot the family land among his kinsfolk. G himself moved a little way from the village and established a new farm. In 1915 he got married, and between 1917 and 1937 the couple had nine children, two of whom died in infancy from pneumonia.

Swidden farming had been actively suppressed by the Finnish government in the mid-19th century as the country’s economy became increasingly connected with the wider world, and the timber resources of its wooded slopes imbued land with a higher monetary value than that represented in the crops of rye and oats that the swidden farmers grew to feed themselves. G’s farming career was built on these old and new foundations. The family grew cereals, vegetables, flax and hay, kept livestock and harvested wild fruits and fish for their own consumption, but also pursued market ventures to stay afloat in the newly monetized local economy.

In 1917, in the aftermath of war and revolution in Russia, Finland became independent and immediately plunged into a brutal civil war between left-wing and right-wing factions. P is unsure how this played out in his grandfather’s life, but there are family memories of famine during this time which were partially mitigated by their access to farmland. A few years after the civil war, a brother of G’s was shot dead by a policeman in a bar. As one of G’s daughters recalled the incident, “Uncle had been able to say ‘don’t shoot’ but the police at the time did not wait for explanations”. G assumed financial responsibility for the child of his slain brother.

In the Winter War of 1939-40, the Soviet Union attacked Finland and overran eastern Karelia. G’s family travelled west as war refugees in a goods train, while G himself packed up what he could from the farm into a horse-drawn cart and walked across the country with it to join them. Among new environs in Finland’s Lutheran west, G’s family and the family of one of his brothers were taken in by a local family in return for farm work. Later, the government allocated them some land in North Karelia to farm themselves. Around this time, G’s oldest son was hit by shrapnel in an explosion and permanently injured. This son’s wife died in childbirth. One of G’s daughters died of meningitis in the crowded home where they were living in exile.

In the Continuation War of 1941-44, Finland – temporarily allied with Nazi Germany – initially pushed Soviet forces out of the country. G and his family returned to their farm in eastern Karelia. The fighting continued. One of G’s daughters worked in civilian support of the war effort, including driving a wagon heroically under enemy fire to resupply frontline troops. Later, she was badly injured in a landmine explosion. As the Continuation War went against Finland, G and his family had to flee west again, using similar methods as before, with G once again walking across the country with a cart loaded with what he could rescue from the farm. After several vicissitudes, the family ended up back at the land they’d been given to the farm in north Karelia in the aftermath of the Winter War.

At the conclusion of World War II, the Soviet-Finnish border was settled, with the family’s original farm and homeland in east Karelia now falling within Soviet territory and permanently lost to them. G continued farming the new land he’d been given in Lutheran north Karelia. The photograph you see was taken in 1950, at the wedding of one of G’s sons. G died nine years later, three years before his youngest daughter gave birth to my friend P in England.

P showed me the picture of his grandfather I’ve reproduced above, before telling me the tale of his life that I’ve related. We agreed that his face seems to hold a sadness, perhaps a grief. Another friend who was shown the picture said that G looked ‘defeated’.  He was, apparently, an untalkative man, and he’s now long dead. He cannot tell us his feelings, and for sure nobody else can either.

But such silences don’t stop us today from expressing our opinions on what peasant farmers like G and others for whom history provides no amplifier must have thought. A common talking point nowadays is that peasant life was and is one of utter misery and backbreaking labour that nobody would ever voluntarily undertake. On page 78 of my book I cite a few authors who’ve worked this particular seam. They’re not hard to find.

But to weigh in with my own voice in the face of G’s silence, I wonder if this is the story he would tell. For sure, there’s relentless work and now-preventable disease in his story (as there still is for too many people today), and there’s heavy responsibility to care for a wider family through uncertain times. But it’s surely worth heeding too the nature of those times. G was one of many who lived his life in the crosshairs of global ‘development’, and who farmed under the ill-starred sign of political forces much larger than their local worlds. A famine caused, as they usually are, by politics and not by ‘natural’ events, the loss and injury of family members to the hostile forces of the state (the army, the police), the loss of natal land beyond an uncrossable modern border, possibly the loss of religious and cultural orientation too, the gnawing uncertainties of war, refugeeism and reliance on strangers, the hard work not only of farming but of establishing a new farm, not once but repeatedly in the face of a changing world. New politics, new borders, new nationalisms, new histories cascading through the early twentieth century. I wonder if it was the strain of these things more than the familiar seasonal cycle of hard work on the farm that we see in G’s sad face.

We’ll never know. An unbridgeable and silent river of history divides our present world from the one that G knew. As I see it, the case for a turn to peasant farming today is about trying to meet the challenges of the present, not about trying to recross that river. But maybe we can meet those challenges better if we’re able to bear witness to the pain that history has caused to peasant farmers like G, and also if we’re able to acknowledge that in their ability to furnish a household livelihood in the face of difficult circumstances we might look to farmers like him as inspirations in the difficult journey that lies ahead for us, rather than as yesterday’s people remembered only in the silence of old photographs.

Automation and a small farm future

The previous post in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future discussed the section on political economy (pp.53-73). Much as I’d like to dwell on various other issues raised therein, I feel I should probably move on to the next part of the book. But fortunately, having just read Aaron Benanav’s stimulating new book Automation and the Future of Work (Verso, 2020), an engagement with it in this post enables me to sweep up a few further issues from that section while simultaneously moving on. Always good to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

I did, in fact, cite Benanav’s work in the aforementioned political economy section of my book, but when I was writing it he hadn’t yet published his own one, which I’ve found helpful in further clarifying my thinking. In this and in a later post, I’ll suggest that his analysis strengthens the case I make for a small farm future, even though that’s not a direction he goes himself. But, as I’ll shortly argue, it could be … and maybe it should be.

Let’s start with Benavav’s appraisal of the present global labour market: many fewer people (proportionately) working in agriculture than previously, many fewer people working in manufacturing than previously, many more people in precarious and low paid employment or underemployment in the service sector than previously, and a very small but growing number of people amassing unprecedentedly stupendous wealth.

A common explanation for these trends is the ‘automation theory’ that argues they arise from labour-shedding technological development. This occurred first in agriculture with what Benanav (p.42) calls ‘the major destroyer of livelihoods in the twentieth century’ in the form of agrarian ‘nitrogen capitalism’ (so named because of agri-industrial reliance on manufactured nitrogenous fertiliser, though in truth it involved a suite of fossil fuel-based developments, so perhaps it’s better seen as another variant of fossil capitalism).

Whatever the terminology, it’s refreshing to see Benanav call agrarian industrialisation for what it is – a destroyer of livelihoods – rather than resorting to the usual upbeat euphemisms of ‘labour saving’ or ‘agricultural improvement’. Now that automation threatens livelihoods across a swathe of other employment sectors – including such bastions of white-collar privilege as medicine and law – perhaps it becomes easier to make the case that in agriculture as in other sectors ‘labour saving’ isn’t necessarily a good thing.

But actually, the main thrust of Benanav’s book is a critique of automation theory. If the present stagnation of the global labour market were really caused by automation, he argues, we’d expect to see a spiralling growth in labour productivity, whereas the trend is better explained by falling global manufacturing output that he imputes to industrial overcapacity and underinvestment. This leads to his important claims that, during the 20th century, manufacturing was “a unique engine of economic growth” and that modern governments have found no other ways to sustain growth when manufacturing output has faltered (pp.34-5).

A minor point to draw from all this in relation to my own book is that I largely ducked the question of future technologies in agriculture because too much attention to drones, robots, GM, GPS, vertical farming and all the rest of it seemed something of a diversion, but I wasn’t 100% comfortable with this evasion. So I find Benanav’s analysis reassuring in suggesting that these really aren’t the main questions before us. For this reason, I’m not going to discuss in this blog cycle the things I do have to say about automation, ‘progress’ etc. in Chapter 2 of my book, which in any case we’ve discussed at length on this website over the years.

So if emerging technologies aren’t the main question, what is? Benanav’s analysis suggests that the faltering growth engine of manufacturing output underlies the present worldwide economic malaise, with more and more workers pushed into necessarily labour-intensive and low-paid service industries. Sometimes this involves small-scale family operations competing successfully with large and highly capitalized firms on the basis of involutionary job creation strategies. It also involves industrial corporations favouring monopolistic competition, the asset bubble of financialization and squeezing worker pay and conditions. And it seems likely that these trends represent a limit or endpoint to the present structure of the global political economy that’s inherent to its internal logic, regardless of wider issues like climate change, energy futures or resource drawdown.

The main question, then, is how might the global political economy escape this impasse once we abandon the fruitless idea that the answer lies in technological development? As I see it, there are four main options, three of which Benanav touches on in his book, and one of which (the most promising one, in my opinion) he doesn’t.

First, there’s the possibility that the global political economy will find a way to barrel through the present crisis and restart the growth engine of industrial development. There are, after all, multitudes of poor people globally who would be only too happy to lead lives of industrialised plenty of the kind many of us lead in the richer countries and the richer parts of the poorer ones. As China increasingly takes over the reins of global economic leadership from the USA, developments like its Belt and Road Initiative may provide exactly the kickstart that’s needed. But I think it’s unlikely. China’s industrialization, like the ones of the western powers preceding it, is based on a coercion of labour that’s unlikely to sustain growth long-term and is already displaying the morbid symptoms of late-stage western capitalism. Throw in the effects of climate change and resource crisis, and it’s hard to see the locomotive of global industrialization escaping the siding where it’s currently languishing and getting back onto the main track.

Second, there’s the possibility of ‘our country first’ economic nationalism. On this point, Benanav is surely right to suggest that “a chronically low demand for labour will not be alleviated by tariff barriers or walled borders” (p.65). I’d argue nonetheless that it would probably be a good way to go for the poorest countries experiencing a net outflow of assets in the globalized economy if they were able to make it happen, but economic nationalism operating at large across the world certainly isn’t going to usher in a new cornucopia of surging global growth and prosperity. I guess Brexit Britain has just started a small experiment on your behalf in this respect. You’re welcome.

Third, there’s the possibility of redistributing the product of the global economy more fairly between rich and poor, young and old. To me, this seems ethically right and will probably happen quite widely one way or another anyway if governments don’t act, because too much inequality sustained for too long prompts political movements geared to restitution. But for all its necessity, it seems to me that a fairer redistribution of economic product doesn’t strike to the root of the problem much more than the other possibilities, because it likewise doesn’t provide the means for radically creating more product and transcending industrial overcapacity and low labour demand.

Here’s where Benanav’s analysis gets, for me, most interesting, but also most problematic. There are different ways in which a fairer distribution of product might be delivered politically. The one Benanav explores is a propertyless socialist utopia in which people collectively divide the necessary work of social reproduction between themselves on a fair and democratic basis, devoting the rest of their time to pursuing their personal passions and pleasures.

There’s much I find appealing in his vision, and some of it covers very similar ground to my own discussion of utopias in my book (pp.85-8). Benanav and I agree that it’s not OK to expect subordinated categories of labour to do the hard work of domestic and social reproduction, and nor is it plausible to expect new developments in automation to ride to the rescue and do it for us. The main point of his brief utopian exercise isn’t to provide some fully realized blueprint for the future, but to suggest that it’s possible for us to create congenial lives for ourselves with existing technology in the here and now, rather than waiting for future technological developments to deliver us into a fantasy future world without work. On this point I wholeheartedly agree.

All the same, there are aspects of his utopia that I find either implausible or unappealing. I won’t expound on them at length here because I hope to come back to this in later posts, but in brief I think he puts too much faith in people’s ability to smoothly divvy up the work between themselves and deliver on what’s expected through ill-defined democratic processes. This is all the more problematic inasmuch as Benanav acknowledges there are kinds of work that can’t be widely shared because they require specialist skills (he mentions farming in this connection) and inasmuch as it would be necessary to somehow hold producers accountable if they failed to come up with the goods.

As for the unappealing, the freedoms that Benanav accords people in his utopia seem to me overly individualistic, disconnected and intellectual. His examples include painting murals, learning languages, inventing things and ‘choosing to explore nature’ (pp.91-2) – this being the only mention I noticed in his book of the extra-human ecological world. It all sounds a bit like a university professor dreaming up a quiet suburban retirement for himself, which – as I suggest in my book (p.85) – is essentially what most written utopias are. And I use the word ‘himself’ here deliberately, because there are some interesting gender framings involved in all this. But we’ll come to that in a later post.

Benanav nevertheless contends – correctly in my opinion – that “feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose are what generate the best work” (p.89), yet it seems to me hard to reconcile this with the highly generalized collective divvying up of work and the holding of producers to account that he identifies – a point that, again, I’ll develop in another post. Rather than drifting around in an agreeable but ultimately somewhat vapid and probably unrealisable ‘post-scarcity’ world, I think true autonomy, mastery and purpose arise through experiencing resistances to one’s agency, partly in relation to other people (the points where collective agreements fail) and partly in relation to the necessary practice of creating a livelihood out of the extra-human world of nature, rather than the option of simply exploring it. In both cases, a sense of autonomy, mastery or purpose arises when one feels equal to the challenge, which is usually only possible through an intimate, grounded, personal, local knowledge of the social and natural landscape.

In other words, the fourth way to address the impasse of the present global political economy may be to embrace the possibility – so admirably implied by Benanav throughout his book, but never confronted head on – of creating a labour-intensive, semi-autonomous livelihood through farming, homesteading or gardening largely on one’s own account, within a wider society which is collectively oriented to enabling people to live that way. Agricultural involution of this sort is far more generative of a sense of purpose than creating involutionary service sector jobs, far more compatible with a low or no economic growth society (a point Benanav makes on p.38), and far less ecologically destructive. It would amount to a small farm future – not a panacea, not a utopia, but a plausible goal to aim at. In my forthcoming posts I’ll continue to outline its contours.

How capitalism started, and why it still matters

A happy new year to you from Small Farm Future, and as happy as possible a Brexit. I have a busy January ahead, involving various podcasts, webinars and conference papers geared to my book (scroll down this page and you’ll find the itinerary). I also need to do some replanting in our stricken ash woodland and attend to various other farm tasks. So I may not be very active on the blog for a while. But I want to start the year with a post that continues my exploration of themes from my book, in this case lighting on Crisis #9: Political Economy (pp.53-73). These twenty pages are in many ways key to the whole book.

To reprise the title of this post, how capitalism started and why it still matters are important themes I discuss within those twenty pages. Maybe it’s necessary to define capitalism before discussing how it originated, but let me begin by defining what it isn’t. If I grow a crop or make a widget, take it to a market and sell it for money to someone who wants it, that doesn’t inherently make me a capitalist. In fact, capitalism isn’t particularly about markets or selling things. This needs stressing over and over, because powerful narratives to the contrary repeatedly fool us into supposing otherwise.

The clue to the nature of capitalism is in the name – capitalism is about making the biggest possible return on capital investment, and it’s about making this fundamental to the whole organization of society. Sometimes capitalism involves selling things in markets in pursuit of that larger aim, but often the major energies lie elsewhere. The best short definition of capitalism along these lines I’ve come across is from Wolfgang Streeck: a capitalist society is one that “secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of individually rational, competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation”1.

And so to the first part of my essay title. How did this bizarre way of organizing affairs get started? In an influential article first published in 1976, historian Robert Brenner argued that it started in England – nowhere else – in the late 15th century, when large-scale rural landowners established competitive tenancies for relatively wealthy peasant farmers, incentivizing them to increase the profits and productivity of their farming. This, Brenner argued, was the result of a longer-term class conflict emerging from medieval contests between landlords and peasants that took the unique turn in England of an only partial victory to the peasants. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, the victory went to the landlords, whereas in France it went to the peasants, establishing different kinds of agrarian society that were only upended in later revolutions. But in England, says Brenner, and only in England, the stalemate between landlords and peasants produced – quite unintendedly on their part – a monetized, accumulative and self-transforming rural capitalist society.

Brenner’s intervention stimulated much research by agrarian historians of England, and the upshot of their enquiries was, in a nutshell, that he was wrong, and there was no simple competitive dynamic between landlord and tenant farmer – though historians usually give Brenner his due for re-energizing their field of enquiry. Brenner himself incorporated some of this revisionism into his later work, but his original formulation remains better known and more influential2.

One way in which a Brennerite view remains influential is a coarsened popular version whereby our modern capitalist ills in England are imputed to ‘the enclosure of the commons’, when profit-seeking landlords moved to stop peasants from accessing land and producing their subsistence. I’ll talk more about commons when I get to Part III of my book in this blog cycle, but the bottom line is that while the extinction of common rights did sometimes occur at the expense of peasant subsistence, enclosure was a hugely complex process, often involving peasants enclosing their own land, and the more you look in detail at its processes in the English countryside, the less clearly related they seem to the emergence of capitalism3.

All this prompts two questions. First, if capitalism didn’t arise in England through rural class conflict, then where and how did it arise? And second, why does any of this matter today? I’ll attempt a brief answer to the first question, which will lead to an answer to the second.

Very broadly, I’d suggest that capitalism arose, to quote from my own book, “out of a confluence where the great trading empires of Asia connected with the fiscal-military states of Europe and their seaborne empires that brought first precious metals and then plantation produce from the Americas into global circuits of exchange, much of it via the super-exploited labour of enslaved Amerindians and Africans” (p.62).

This alternative approach to capitalist origins was pioneered by thinkers of the left like André Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein. A couple of points to notice about it. First, it’s less Eurocentric or Anglocentric than Brenner: capitalism wasn’t the achievement of any single country or region, but resulted from relations between many – albeit relations greatly influenced by colonial domination enthusiastically prosecuted by European powers. Second, unlike the Brenner thesis, this approach makes the role of centralized states key to the emergence of capitalism. Again, despite powerful narratives to the contrary, capitalism has always been a state project – in fact, a project of commercial linkage between states. Brenner wrote an article criticizing this approach and its leading theorists for “neo-Smithian [i.e. commerce-emphasizing] Marxism”. In this, he built on a long left-wing tradition of claiming superior status through greater loyalty to the thought of Karl Marx, and of disdain for left-wing thinkers who look beyond it – a tradition that unfortunately still seems to be with us. But, unlike Brenner’s thesis, the ‘neo-Smithian’ approach now commands more general support among economic historians, leftwing and otherwise, despite ongoing disagreement about the details4.

Anyway, if we go back to English history with this more state-centred view of capitalism in mind, it becomes easier to notice that the Tudor state took steps to protect English peasants from expropriation by aristocratic landlords. This arose less from benevolence than from conflicts between state and aristocracy over command of resources, conflicts that England’s unusually weak aristocracy generally lost. It also becomes easier to notice how the early modern English state was locked in fierce battles with other European states – the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal etc. – to grow its economy through imperial control of wider trade and monetary networks.

I’d argue that capitalism arose more as an unintended consequence of this emerging system of competitive states than as a consequence of rural class conflict in England specifically. A look at the English countryside from the late medieval through the early modern period does show an increasing commercialism across all classes, with more monetization, capitalization and consumerism, and I’m not suggesting this had no bearing on the state’s trajectory towards capitalism. I’d nevertheless argue that the real motor of that trajectory was in the dynamics of the state and its competitors.

Why do these events of many centuries ago and the different explanations for them matter today? Because I think we’re now living in the twilight of global capitalism, arising out of its unsustainable dynamics of capital accumulation and their consequences in terms of energy, climate, soil, water, economics, politics and other things (in other words, all the crises that I discuss in Part I of my book). This forces us to consider how our societies might transcend these unsustainable dynamics, and here the different approaches to capitalist origins push in different directions and lead their proponents to emphasize different issues. I won’t trace these differences in all their ramifications here, but I’ll conclude by homing in on a few of them which seem to me particularly important to frame politically.

It’s often said nowadays that the old divisions between left-wing and right-wing politics are breaking down, which I think is true in many ways. I find class versus state approaches to capitalist development quite helpful in thinking through this reconfiguration.

People drawn to orthodox Brennerite class-based leftism are inclined to protest – too much, in my opinion – about small-scale private property rights, petty commerce, personal economic autonomy and so on, because they regard it as prelude to or generative of capitalism. But this is only likely to be true in situations where these features are being actively coopted by growing, centralized states forging a capitalist world order. The situation we now face is more likely one of state decline, contraction and disintegration – and in those circumstances I would, on the contrary, actively champion opportunities for widespread, accessible, secure, small-scale rural property tenure and petty marketing as critical for the possibilities of a decent life.

There are, alternatively, state-centred thinkers who take a rosy view of the capitalist state’s corporatism and technological prowess, and this usually terminates on both the political left and right in a techno-fixing rearguard commitment to the large-scale corporatist status quo in the face of present challenges – which is why to my eyes the arguments of people like Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Mike Shellenberger, Leigh Phillips, Mark Lynas or Nick Srnicek end up looking pretty similar, despite their different self-proclaimed positionings on a left-right axis.

Then there are people who view capitalist development as a largely malign manifestation of centralized state aggrandizement, and seek more convivial and organically local forms of socioeconomic action – a camp in which I find myself. Touchstone concepts for this way of thinking include individual and local self-reliance, autonomy, liberty, rural/small town revival, petty commerce and (primarily) local mutuality. The right-wing or conservative resonances of these concepts are perhaps obvious, but so too should be the left-wing ones – particularly once we abandon the misguided notion that selling wares at local markets or having decision-making autonomy over farm property are somehow intrinsically capitalist, or that notions of “community, magic, craftsmanship, and enchantment” as discussed by Ernie in this interesting comment are intrinsically conservative or ‘reactionary’. I hope to come back to this in a future post.

Nevertheless, I continue to identify with the political left and so there are aspects of this local autonomism that I consider potentially problematic and in need of checking – namely, accumulated economic privileges between households, families and, ultimately, classes, and other differentials of social power between different kinds of people, perhaps especially between men and women, and between ‘local’ and ‘non-local’ groupings. So, within the limitations of a short and non-technical book, I go to some lengths in A Small Farm Future to address how these problematic tendencies may conceivably be checked within semi-autonomous local societies of the future in the context of contracting centralized states. An important part of this that I broach in Crisis #9 and discuss elsewhere in the book is the need to avoid the inequalities associated with extractive landlordism, to which secure and widespread rights to private property in farmland offer one solution.

In this respect, I share a Brennerite concern about extractive landlordism, which I think is a bad thing – but I don’t think it’s a thing that’s inherently generative of capitalism. So while any just, post-capitalist local politics must address local class formation and conflicts around things like landlordism, the connections between local producers and the larger state are ultimately more to the point in how those class conflicts play out, as analyzed in Part IV of my book5. As per recent discussions on this site, I’d suggest that recourse to an analytical language of class derived from older state/producer formations that have now largely passed into history (‘the peasantry’, ‘the proletariat’, ‘the (petty) bourgeoisie’ etc.) lack coherence unless they’re plausibly linked to the new and unprecedented terrain of state/producer relations that’s emerging in the contemporary world: capital decline, state decay and retrenchment, mass migration, pervasive ecological disruption and so forth. My book presses the view that ‘the peasantry’ may be one of the few such categories to retain some relevance in this emerging world.

I’m wary of political traditions that propose the centralized state as the major safeguard against problems like local landlordism or patriarchy, especially in view of its declining reach. I’m warier still of political traditions that regard the state as an instrument of ‘the people’, or of a sub-set of the people regarded by the tradition as particularly worthy or important, such as ‘the working class’. As I see it, the state is no less, and often much more, capable of acting the rapacious landlord, predatory bandit or chauvinist paterfamilias as any smalltime landholder, and this view colours much of my analysis in Parts III and IV of the book.

But we’ll come to that presently. For now I’ll simply conclude by saying that the difficulties of constructing just societies out of the wreckage of global capitalism in the present historical moment seem virtually insurmountable, but they’re just a little less insurmountable if we can specify accurately the nature of capitalism, its origins and the implications for what comes next.

Notes

  1. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End, pp.58-9.
  2. Brenner’s contributions and early responses to it are collected in T. Aston & C. Philpin’s The Brenner Debate (Cambridge, 1985). His later work includes Merchants and Revolution (Princeton, 1993). Other assessments, contestations and counternarratives to his earlier writing on English agrarian class structures include Jane Whittle (Ed) Landlords and Tenants in Britain, 1440-1660 (Boydell, 2013) – especially the essay therein by David Ormrod; Christopher Dyer A Country Merchant, 1495-1520 (Oxford, 2012); J. Blaut Eight Eurocentric Historians (Guilford, 2000); Henry Heller The Birth of Capitalism (Pluto, 2011).
  3. See, for example, Robert Allen Enclosure and the Yeoman (Oxford, 1992); J. Yelling Common Field & Enclosure in England 1450-1850 (Macmillan, 1977).
  4. Robert Brenner. 1977. The origins of capitalist development: a critique of neo-Smithian Marxism. New Left Review 104: 25-93; Immanuel Wallerstein. 1974. The Modern World System; Ronald Findlay & Kevin O’Rourke. 2007. Power & Plenty; Heller op cit.; Blaut op cit.
  5. Neglect of this same issue has, incidentally, been a major rallying point for critics of Brenner: see Blaut op cit.; Heller op cit. This raises some interesting issues that I hope to pursue in future posts – perhaps especially in relation to rural sociologist Max Ajl’s interesting recent writings on war and nationalism.

A Small Farm Future – seasonal update

I wasn’t planning to write another pre-Christmas post, but a few items have come across the editorial desk which I want to share.

First, I’m excited to be doing a webinar on 27 January along with Vandana Shiva and Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm (and author of Farming While Black) – further details TBA. I’m also recording a podcast early in January with Ben Trollinger of Acres USA, running a panel at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on delivering a small farm future at 12 noon GMT on 11 January, doing a guest session on the Surviving the Future course on 13 January, speaking at the RIHN symposium on 15 January and at the NOFA-New Jersey conference on 31 January. Further details likewise TBA – do check the My Book page of the website. I’ve just updated it, but sheesh it’s a fast-moving field!

I have various other things going on in the background too in January, possibly even some farm work, so I may not get around to doing much blogging. But I’ll try to knock out the next post in my present series where I blog my way through my book sometime in early January. Then I hope to see you on the other side!

In other news, Jura has sent me this picture of his Christmas preparations, referencing a discussion we had on here some time ago. Or else search online for ‘Polish Christmas traditions’ or ‘carp in the bath’.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re eating, my best wishes for the holidays and a happy new year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning the clock forward

The next stop in my tour through my book A Small Farm Future is Part I, which begins with a long chapter outlining ten crises that one way or another seem set in the coming years to thoroughly upend the world we’ve known.

As I see it, these crises are such that for good or ill a small farm future awaits many of us or our descendants. So after Chapter 1, the rest of the book is basically about how people might try to accentuate the good and mitigate the ills of this likely future – a difficult journey, with no guaranteed endpoint.

I’m not going to reprise what I say in Chapter 1 here on the blog, much of which in any case will be familiar to readers here. But in this and the next few posts I’d like to extend and further explain my thinking around some key points from this chapter, and also cast forward to Chapter 2 where I try to put the implications of our present crises into a wider political context.

I was a bit horrified to discover that a couple of readers assumed I’d placed the ten crises (starting with ‘Population’ and ending with ‘Culture’) in order of importance. The truth is that the ordering is somewhat random, based on ease of exposition, but generally trends from immediate or ‘proximal’ issues like climate change towards what I see as the deeper underlying ones in our politics, economics and culture. More importantly, I see all these crises as complexly interlinked, and scarcely amenable to simple, one-shot, technical solutions.

Still, we live in a world that’s complexly interlinked through the medium of cheap and abundant energy. Therefore it’s unsurprising, if ironic, that mainstream discussion of our present crises often emphasizes simplistic (albeit technically complex), one-shot solutions, primarily in relation to energy. It seems worth saying a little more about this, building on my analysis in Crisis #3 of Chapter 1 (pp.28-36), to address both the complexities and simplicities of energy.

My starting point is this article featuring Zion Lights, once a spokeswoman for Extinction Rebellion (XR) but now decamped to Mike Shellenberger’s pro-nuclear lobby group, in which she critiques XR for “peddling the notion that the solution to the climate crisis was to turn the clock back to a simpler time”.

I’ve said it before on this blog, but I guess it just has to be repeated again and again – few people in the environmental movement genuinely want to ‘turn the clock back’ to the past, and there was no point in the past that ever really was a ‘simpler time’. There are, however, quite a number of people around nowadays who apparently want to ‘turn the clock forward to a simpler time’ by imagining there are straightforward, one-shot solutions to our present problems like nuclear power or renewables that will make them simply disappear so we can get back to business as usual. Given the likely failure of such solutions, the point of looking at the past is not to recreate it but to try to learn what we can from people who of necessity lived in lower energy societies, because we’ll probably be inhabiting one ourselves soon enough.

But will energy options like nuclear power really fail to deliver the goods? Not long after reading the Zion Lights article I got involved in a Twitter exchange (yes, I know) with various nuclear enthusiasts – the sort where the condescending putdowns make you curse the day social media was invented, but where you keep going because you’re learning something, even though you end up feeling kind of dirty. Suffice to say that if some of these guys were put in charge of making the PR case for nuclear power, we can be certain it won’t happen.

One of the participants asked me to provide rational objections to nuclear power, and presented some “actual data from 2060” to show how nuclear could feasibly replace fossil fuels (a pie chart of energy projections provided by the Chinese government, as it happens) but quit the debate after I suggested that, er, actual data from 2060 doesn’t yet exist. Another participant – Dr Tom Biegler – linked to this paper he’d written about energy futures in Australia and suggested I read it. I’ve now done that and am ready to lay out my rational case against turning the clock forward to a simpler time when nuclear energy has solved our problems. It’s a sevenfold one, as follows:

1. The major resource and biophysical crises we face today on Earth, and many of the cultural and political ones, are ultimately traceable to humanity’s worldwide investment in powerful, strongly centralized, capital-accumulating political states. I’m doubtful that any satisfactory long-term solutions will be found without radically dissipating that capital and political energy. But nuclear power absolutely relies upon and justifies powerful, strongly centralized, capital-accumulating political states. Therefore I see it as incompatible with sustainable human culture.

2. Current nuclear technologies produce small but significant quantities of high-level waste which, as I understand it, remains dangerous for generations and has not yet been rendered safe – largely because it’s too expensive. It seems likely that it will be even more expensive for future societies, and probably beyond their technical capacities. Dr Biegler writes of the need to combat “deep-seated anti-nuclear sentiment” in relation to issues including waste disposal. The best way of combating this ‘sentiment’ is surely to solve the issue giving rise to it. In the meantime it seems to me quite rational not to further invest in technologies until their products can be made safe for future generations.

3. If we could swap out all fossil fuelled energy for nuclear-powered electricity, we would still be facing numerous resource crises concerning water, nitrogen, phosphorus, metals and soil, along with political and economic crises. One response to that might be to say that at least with abundant nuclear energy we’d have one less crisis on our hands. But it’s surely reasonable (rational, even?) to suggest that the very multiplicity of these crises is telling us that our problems aren’t fundamentally about energy, and nor are the solutions.

4. Talking of water, nuclear power stations such as the gigantic Hinkley C now under construction not too far from my home are often located next to the ocean because of their need for abundant water. But given the uncertainties about future climate change and sea level rise, it might be rational not to do this.

5. There are only about 30 countries worldwide generating nuclear power, mostly rich ones with extensive electricity infrastructures. Electrifying and transitioning most of the other countries to nuclear power within the next few decades is, to say the least, unlikely, and in any case would raise numerous further problems. The climate impact of feasible nuclear transitions therefore seems likely to be slight.

6. Bringing together the previous points, I do not trust a society that commits itself so insouciantly to capital-accumulating state centralism, to leaving dangerous waste as a legacy for future generations to deal with, to meeting systemic crisis with piecemeal solutionism, and to policies that benefit the few and not the many. Is my mistrust rational? I think so, but others might say it’s merely emotional or spiritual. If so, then I guess I’m for mere emotions and spirituality, and against rationality.

7. But, against such spiritual arguments, I’ve heard people make the case for nuclear power through the analogy of a physician treating a critically ill patient: however spiritually misguided the patient was in their lifestyle choices that led to the illness now killing them, the physician’s job is to try to keep them alive using whatever technologies are available. By analogy, nuclear power may save the life of our present civilization, however decadent it is. We can worry about its spiritual improvement later. As I see it, though, the patient may still be showing a few vital signs, but in truth they’re beyond salvation and the physician shouldn’t waste scarce time, money and material resources in heroic but fruitless attempts to save the unsavable. It would be better to devote them to more promising ends, such as founding a renewable culture. In this view, nuclear power is what Duncan McLaren nicely calls a “technology of prevarication”.

But is the patient really unsavable? That’s a tricky one, and will only be answerable with the benefit of hindsight. Nevertheless, Dr Biegler provides some numerical analyses in his report that give us a little purchase on the issue. I’ll discuss them in my next post.

History deep, prospect wide

There’s one other theme from the Introduction to my book that I want to raise in this cycle of posts before moving on to Part I.

But first, maybe it’s relevant to my theme to take a quick look at wider news. I heard they had an election over in the USA, but it seems all isn’t yet settled and there are competing narratives about the result and its implications. Was the Democratic victory fraudulent or bona fide? (Clue: the latter). Did the left of the Democratic party nearly lose the election for it, or help push it over the line? Was the Trump presidency a strange anomaly or a harbinger of future political turbulence? Is the onus on ‘liberals’ to understand why so many people voted for Trump, or on ‘conservatives’ to understand why so many more didn’t? Is Trumpism destined to live on in the hearts and guns of the now semi-mythical ‘white working class’ – or is it actually a project of the white middle class, or some other group? And, if implemented, will Biden’s climate policies be able to change the game, or will they meet an impossible trade-off between fossil-fuelled capitalism and climate-induced degrowth?

Closer to home here in the UK, a Biden presidency may spell the end of the no deal Brexit brigade’s ascendancy. Expect a last minute trade deal on disadvantageous terms with the EU trumpeted as a great victory, through which the remaining vital organs of British capitalism will be carved up between larger global players – perhaps with the UK itself as a political entity the ultimate casualty. Meanwhile, with the Northern Independence Party forming and opposition growing within the Labour Party against its lurch to authoritarian centrism, the supersedure state of which I speak in Part IV of my book may be upon us sooner than I thought.

Ah yes, so finally on the news front … my book. It was briefly riding as high as about #7,000 on the Amazon bestseller list, which I’m told isn’t bad going at all. See the My book page for some online resources (including how not to buy it from Amazon), recent reviews and other exciting news about said tome. And do please consider writing an online review, especially if it’s positive.

So … I’ll be watching with interest to see how the various narratives described above unfold, while hoping that the US (and the UK) will emerge from their present imbroglios without irreparable damage. But now I want to turn to another case of divergent narratives that I broach in the Introduction to my book.

On page 7 I write “Throughout the world, there are long and complex histories by which people have been both yoked unwillingly to the land and divested unwillingly from it”. These histories fuel many different and often competing stories about land, food and belonging, but also a kind of modern historical forgetfulness about the complexity of human relationships with land (and water) through time.

I argue throughout the book that it’s necessary to overcome this forgetfulness, and recover the stories of land and loss that lie behind it in all their complexity and dissonance. Without this, I doubt we’ll be able to make wise decisions that will really work locally about the many pressing issues we face today. We’d probably resort instead to superficial morality tales that have long outlived their usefulness drawn from an (also superficial) grasp of history. And such tales are legion. Here in England, they include the notion that enclosure spelled the end of peasant agriculture, that industrialization ultimately liberated people from poverty, and that this industrialization was some endogenous process of modernization and development that had nothing to do with England’s colonial exactions elsewhere in the world.

I’d hope people reading my book would come away from it with a sense that such stories are oversimplifications that no longer serve us. But the book makes limited headway in telling better historical tales, largely because I only had so many pages to play with and the world is a large and complex place. But those deeper tales do need to be told. Carwyn Graves’s interesting review of my book from a Welsh perspective is a good example of how one might begin that telling.

In the meantime, I’d suggest – to paraphrase a recent British prime minister – that “no history is better than bad history”. In other words, given the unique set of problems people presently face, it’s as well to try to be as open-minded as possible about how to solve them rather than drawing on bad historical analogizing to close off particular approaches. Here are some common examples of the kind of bad analogizing I have in mind:

  • This country/region won’t be able to feed itself in the future, because it never did in the past
  • A small farm future would be unpleasant because the small farm past was
  • There have been people in the past who were happy to quit peasant farming, so nobody will be happy to take it up in the future
  • Nobody will renounce mass consumer society for a small farm future of simple living in the future, because in the past people opted for the former over the latter
  • Technology will solve people’s present problems because it solved people’s past ones
  • Any future attempt to create local agrarian autonomy will be crushed by centralized states, as in the past
  • Positive change will be led by the downtrodden, because past experience shows they’re the ones who truly appreciate how the present system works

I’m not saying that such statements will inevitably turn out to be wrong. I’m just saying that they might turn out to be wrong, and a superficial analysis of past analogues to our contemporary questions is a poor guide to how they will, in fact, turn out.

One of the defects of the historical analogizing I’m criticizing is that it’s ill attuned to dissonance, contradiction and competing narratives. So while, for example, it’s true that Britain has long been a net importer of food, throughout this time there have been people arguing that it can and should largely feed itself. They weren’t necessarily wrong, they just lost the political argument. Maybe their successors will be luckier. Perhaps there are implacable forces in history, but I suspect not as many as at first it seems when so many people jump on the bandwagon of the ‘had to happen’ on the flimsy evidence of the ‘did happen’. The past could have led to a different present. The present may lead to a future beyond our current imaginings.

So let your history run deep, and your horizons scan wide. Next up: Part I.

Both hands now – an introduction to ‘A Small Farm Future’

Today I’m going to begin my cycle of posts commenting on, expanding and perhaps occasionally qualifying the analyses in my book A Small Farm Future.

You have bought your copy by now, right? Ah well … far be it from me to tell you what to do with your hard-earned cash. Suffice to say that I’m not planning to summarise or repackage what’s in the book, so if you haven’t read it or aren’t an old hand on this blog, some of these posts may be a little mystifying in places. Others, though, should work as standalone pieces. One way or another, I hope you’ll find something of interest and perhaps some things worthy of debate within them.

I’m going to work my way through the book roughly in page order. The book starts with ‘The Civet’s Tale’, which I sketched in order to make the point that, almost invariably, the choices we make have downsides as well as upsides, perhaps in agriculture more than in most areas of life (and, unfortunately or otherwise, agriculture is at the root of all those other areas of life).

Another way of putting this, following on from my previous post, is that after only death and taxes (in fact, before taxes), a certainty in life is trade-offs. Arguing this puts me in the company of mainstream economists, whose discipline proceeds largely from the concept of opportunity cost or decision-making in circumstances of scarcity. There are those – often on the political left, my own political home turf – who insist that such notions are a conceit of our capitalist economic system, which manufactures an artificial scarcity. Along similar lines there are those in agriculture, both alternative and mainstream, who insist that there’s a ‘right’ way you can farm – out of which flows abundant produce, social harmony, a handsome income to the farmer and all other good and wholesome things1. Well … don’t get me wrong … honestly, I’m with the left, and I’m with the agrarian renegades. But on just a few significant points I’m also with the mainstream economists and the sceptics of cornucopia. As I see it, Harry Truman’s yearning for a one-handed economist is rightly destined to go forever unfulfilled. Perhaps this shelfie of some of the books that particularly influenced the approach I took in my own book illustrates the point – try to reconcile the arguments in all this lot.

On pages 1-3 of my book I try to thread a way through arguments from left and right, from ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’, about decision-making under circumstances of constraint – arguing that in the present world-historical moment this points to many more people than at present turning to an agrarian life. The rest of the book, and indeed this blog, is premised on working through those implications.

Although I share a trade-off based starting point with mainstream economic thinking, there are a couple of ways in which my analysis departs from it. One of them is that I’m open to the idea that ‘scarcity’ and ‘abundance’ are not analytical absolutes but in many ways are just words we attach to certain kinds of feelings (and there’s an underlying psychology to those feelings that I examine at various points in the book, particularly Chapter 16). The things humans need are both scarce and abundant, and the best place most of us can be for getting the measure of those twin truths is on the farm, where we have to build a livelihood in their shadow.

Another way I depart from mainstream economics is that, as I see it, only a few of these trade-offs are quantitative ones that can be expressed through the medium of money. Whereas it’s a commonplace of contemporary culture to say that arguments for a small farm life or for economic localism are romantic and fanciful, I argue in the book that the real romanticism in contemporary culture, the real fantasy, is our views of money, capital and trade as the solution to our problems, as the measure of our wellbeing and as a meaningful claim against the world. In this respect, anyone who says that my book is a nostalgic evocation of past rural worlds that are now inevitably lost to us either hasn’t read it or has badly misunderstood it.

But we’ll come back to money and markets presently. For now, I’ll conclude by highlighting a few of the trade-offs that I examine in the book, not many of which are ‘economic’ ones in the usual sense of the term.

So as I see it (and as I explain in more detail in my book), you can’t usually or easily:

  • Produce more food or fibre from a given area without creating more work for somebody, or more pollution, or more stress on wild organisms, or all of those things.
  • Introduce ‘improvements’ into a society that aren’t experienced as degradations for some people – thereby calling into question singular narratives of universal social ‘progress’
  • Develop new crop varieties that involve significantly less labour input and less environmental impact, but yield as well or better than older varieties
  • Create globalized networks of profit-seeking trade without degrading human and non-human ecologies somewhere
  • Create collective forms of human organisation without creating interpersonal conflicts
  • Dismantle collective forms of human organisation without creating other interpersonal conflicts
  • Build and populate cities without energetic and social costs
  • Surrender a sense of personal autonomy without spiritual cost

Some of these issues we’ve already discussed at length and picked over on this blog, but in the posts to come I’ll try to lay them out (alongside other issues) afresh once more to fill in some of the gaps in the book and round out its analyses. I hope you’ll join me.

Note

  1. On this point, see this recent comment to an old blog post of mine and my reply … further comments on this welcome.