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.


  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.

Have yourself a merry little agrarian populist Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The sheep sacrifice

Continuing my amble through my book A Small Farm Future, my next stop in Part I is Crisis #7 – Land (pp.43-51). There’s a specific aspect of this that’s topical at the moment here in the UK, so I’ll begin with that and work my way towards a more general conclusion that’s implicit in the book.

With a no deal Brexit looming and the Government’s farm subsidy regimen shifting towards payments only for delivering ‘public goods’, it looks like hard times may lie ahead for many commercial farmers in the UK, none more so than for upland livestock farmers. The UK is by far the EU’s largest sheep producer, and about a third of its production is exported, the great majority to other EU countries. So sheep farmers (primarily in the uplands) face a double blow of contracting markets and contracting farm support. I’m not sure exactly how that will play out, but maybe with farmers shooting a lot of next year’s lambs. I hope none of them end up shooting themselves.

The decline of the upland livestock industry will be celebrated by many in the (re)wilding movement, for whom Britain’s ‘sheepwrecked’ mountains have become the iconic example of misplaced agrarianism at the expense of wilderness. Without the intensive grazing pressure of sheep, the argument goes, the mountains would regain their tree cover, with numerous benefits for biodiversity, as well as lowland flood abatement. And instead of eking out a marginal economic existence as farmers, the people of the uplands could then earn better rewards as custodians of the rejuvenating wilderness and workers in the consequently growing tourist industry.

The rewilders surely have a point. Sheep stocking in the uplands is at a high level historically and there’s much to be said for reducing it and creating more complex silvopastoral upland landscapes. Arguably, this would more closely resemble the farmed upland landscapes of the past, when the mountain valleys would also have had a greater diversity of arable farming, horticulture and local crafts and industries, much of it devoted to local needs. What changed was less an enthusiasm among upland farmers to cram the hills with sheep than the dictates of central government policy, in the UK as in many other countries, which has generally pushed farmers to focus upon the single most advantageous and remunerative crop in their area to the exclusion of almost everything else. There’s a danger that by design or default (re)wilding will figure as another top-down policy prescription imposed from afar, without connecting to local histories of mixed land use geared to feeding people locally.

This touches on debates about so-called ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’ that I discuss under Crisis #7 in the book. Behind them lies a wider philosophical question of human ecology: which is preferable, a world of domesticated and urbanized humans experiencing unpeopled wilderness only as visitors and sojourners, or a world of rather wilder humans making modest livelihoods in rural spaces? And perhaps behind them too lies a matter of practical ecology sparked by the classic ecological question of why the world is green – that is, are plant-rich terrestrial landscapes preserved from the depredations of herbivorous animals top-down by predator control of the herbivores, or bottom-up by plant defences against herbivory?

I won’t dwell on all that here, but essentially I’m in the bottom-up camp. Share land, wild ourselves by learning to live in place, and don’t over-fetishise predators because plants can more or less take care of themselves. Still, in the short term I daresay that erstwhile farmers in the uplands will make a better living working as tour guides than they ever did as shepherds. In the present economy, herding people always pays better than herding livestock. But while they might be making a better living – and while some, I’m sure, will genuinely take to tourist work – I’m not convinced that many upland folks will be making a better livelihood, in the sense of participating in a way of life that’s deeply structured to the sustaining possibilities of the local landscape. And this, ultimately, is what seems most likely to endure. The present collapse of tourism due to Covid-19 is surely only the harbinger of a larger and longer collapse in the possibility that the wider economy can keep infusing places with wealth greatly beyond their local means.

For sure, people gain from participating in the wider economy and the services it provides. Doubtless there are few who would want to renounce all of it in what Emma Marris (who I quote on p.27 of my book) calls the ‘grand sacrifices’ involved in turning our backs on our contemporary high-energy, high-throughput society. But that society isn’t quite as paradisiacal as is often supposed, especially for those with a less advantageous place within it. And, however paradisiacal it is, it’s in any case unlikely to survive the numerous crises that I outline in Part I of my book.

Therefore, I think many of us certainly will need to make sacrifices. So perhaps it’s as well for us to ‘sacrifice’ in the original sense of the word – to make sacred. An awful lot of contemporary thought makes sacred urban, fluid, high-energy consumer culture. It’s time to put this romanticism aside. We now need to find ways to come to terms with both the opportunities and the constraints within local agroecosystems like the forgotten silvo-arable-pastoral systems of upland Britain, thereby making them sacred.

But with the sacred comes the profane. So we also need to think through the difficulties of small farm localism, just as the romantics of urban modernity need to think through the difficulties of their own vision. As to whether continuing with present high-energy, urbanizing, monoculturalizing trends involves more sacrifice than low-energy, decentralizing, landscape diversifying trends, it really depends on what you consider to be sacred.

Going nuclear

After the furies of engaging with fantasy reviews of my book in my last post, let’s get back to something safe and uncontroversial – nuclear power. Here, I continue with my theme from this post about energy futures, particularly the notion that we can transition from our present high energy, high carbon civilization to a future high energy, low carbon one based around nuclear power.

On page 31 of my book, I present a version of Figure 1 below, which shows global primary energy consumption since 1965 by energy source. It suggests that there’s been no transition out of fossil fuels up to now. True, we’re using a lot more low-carbon energy now than we were in 1965 – over 1,900 million more tonnes of oil equivalent in 2018, in fact. But we’re also using a lot more fossil energy too – over 8,000 million tonnes more over the same period. So at the moment, low-carbon energy is merely adding to our growing total use of energy, rather than substituting for the fossil energy component of it. On pp.31-3 of my book I discuss why this is so.

Figure 1: Global energy consumption by fuel type, 195-2018 (million tonnes of oil equivalent)

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019

But of course what’s happened up to now isn’t a secure guide to the future. It’s possible that we soon will begin transitioning to a high energy, low carbon civilization and those climbing fossil fuel quantities in Fig 1 will drop away.

To probe that possibility we need to address a few somewhat technical points. First, most sources of low carbon energy furnish us with electricity, so a high-energy, low-carbon society would have to be largely an electrically powered one. An advantage of low carbon electrical energy is that it’s efficient in its final use, whereas something like a diesel engine or a coal-powered turbine wastes a lot of energy as heat. Therefore, in order to retain the level of final energy usage implied by the fossil energy shown in Figure 1 while replacing it with low carbon electricity, it wouldn’t be necessary to match the levels of total fossil energy consumption shown in the figure, which exceed low carbon consumption by a factor of more than 5. In his paper that I mentioned in my earlier post, Tom Biegler estimates that a more appropriate factor for Australia is a (“conservative”) 2.4 – which could perhaps be generalized globally given that the proportion of electrical energy to total energy consumption is about the same in each case.

When I put together the version of Figure 1 above that appears on page 31 of the book, I hadn’t pondered this point as much as I probably should have done – but I don’t think it matters for the purposes of a retrospective/historical presentation. The graph shows as a matter of historical fact that low-carbon energy has added to rather than substituted for fossil energy consumption, and this is worth knowing. But if we try to project into the future it does matter, because – as stated above – we may not need to use as much low carbon electrical energy in the future as the fossil energy we use now in order to get the same work done.

I used the uncertain “may not” in the previous sentence because there’s another side to the coin. There are some industrial processes like fertiliser and steel manufacture that are less energy intensive when using fossil fuels than electricity. Creating the higher capacity global electrical infrastructure that would be necessary for a fully electrified global energy system, including the end products like electric cars, will also require an enormous upfront energy outlay, as Joe Clarkson pointed out under my earlier post. So exactly how this might play out is debatable.

Anyhow, Figure 2 shows the low carbon electricity (nuclear or renewables, but excluding hydro) that’s been generated year on year from 1965 to 2018, with three projections for how it will have to increase if the global energy economy is to abandon fossil fuels by 2050.

Figure 2: Low carbon electricity generation and projections, 1965-2050 (TWh)

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019

The blue line indicates the necessary increase if existing global final energy use turned exclusively to low carbon electricity, based on Dr Biegler’s conservative factor of 2.4, while ignoring the factors pushing energy use higher that I just mentioned – therefore underestimating the true challenge. But this leaves untouched the differences in energy use between richer and poorer countries, making this scenario implausible. Poorer countries are unlikely to invest massively in a low carbon energy transition without remedy to the gulf between rich and poor country levels of energy use – especially the energy-hungry poorer countries that are now the world’s industrial powerhouses, and that currently are heavily dependent upon fossil fuels.

The orange line adjusts for this by ‘levelling up’ to show the increased low carbon generation that would be required if every country in the world used energy at the same per capita level as Australia, on which Dr Biegler’s calculations are based – and why shouldn’t they?

Finally, the grey line shows the necessary increase if governments globally adopt the radical energy-cutting measures that a recent paper argued were feasible while retaining a decent life for citizens (though the paper professed uncertainty about how these cuts could be practically achieved).

Nobody can tell how the future will unfold, but my sense of things is that we will not see anything like the steep gradients in the blue and orange lines occurring in practice. The grey line is slightly more feasible, but is still a big leap – and would require rapid energy-cutting measures that are currently not occurring. And of course, for each passing year that new low-carbon generation falls behind the curve, the gradients just get steeper.

To my mind, the graph underscores a point made by Kevin Anderson: people have their silver bullet technologies of choice, but “you cannot build your way out with bits of shiny kit” – and that applies to both nuclear and renewable energy. So where does that leave us? Possibly with a more vernacular than literal interpretation of the phrase that it’s “time to go nuclear”. In other words, it’s time to accept that we need to drastically cut our energy usage in the rich countries, starting right now, and take our efforts to create a renewable economy up to a whole new level of urgency, throwing the kitchen sink (to mix my metaphors with another piece of high tech kit) at energy reduction. This would undoubtedly have to involve the richer countries helping the poorer ones to decarbonize, essentially by gifting them low carbon electricity capacity, which would also have the happy result of creating a more even global economic playing field.

It’s possible that’ll happen, but I can’t quite see it. It seems more likely that the pace of decarbonization will pick up a bit in the coming years, albeit with actual achievements failing to match spoken commitments. Probably, the worst case climate change scenarios for the century’s end will be avoided, accompanied by much thinktanking along the way about how a 3oC world really isn’t so bad – as seems to be the direction that the new look, more serious, post-Michael Shellenberger Breakthrough Institute is headed.

Then perhaps we reach a crunch point in the rich world – carbon taxes begin to bite, people have to hunker down more locally and grow more of their own food while welcoming newcomers from places where the hunkering hasn’t worked out, at the same time probably watching their tax dollars heading off in a desperate bid to reconcile the economic status quo with climate stability by building low carbon infrastructures in the poorer countries while seeing the likes of Jeff Bezos get ever richer, with economy-shredding climate shocks becoming ever more frequent. My hope is that they’ll find a way through that into a more equitable, more local, lower carbon world. But I couldn’t honestly say that it’s my expectation.

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.


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

The US election: perspectives from an ear of grain

With an important election looming in the USA, let’s talk for a change about politics. But since this is primarily a farming blog, I thought I’d approach it obliquely from the agricultural angle of cereal breeding. It’s obvious when you think about it…

Actually, before we even get to the cereal breeding, we need to take a step back and talk about systems of classification. Because to make any sense of things, people inevitably need to divide up their perceptions of the world, grouping like things together. But our taxonomies can rarely if ever capture the complexity of existence perfectly. Anomalous cases, fuzzy boundaries and alternative reckonings abound.

One way these imperfections manifest is in the distinction between ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’. Take two palaeontologists arguing over some fragments of fossil bone. Professor Lumper thinks the small differences between like bones aren’t enough to justify classifying them as belonging to different species, whereas Professor Splitter takes the opposite view. Their argument is potentially endless and irresolvable – unless there’s some agreed objective standard against which to judge their claims. In the case of evolutionary biology, that standard arguably exists in the possibility of tracing descent from a common ancestor, though that’s not going to help the professors resolve this particular dispute.

The advantage of lumping is that it enables us to see big picture stuff, the broader patterning in the world. But push it too far and it becomes overly simplistic, and ultimately vacuous – and the grounds for the lumping can usually be questioned. The advantage of splitting is that you can grasp the fine-grained detail of things. But push it too far and you get lost in pettifogging specifics that prevent an appreciation of deeper underlying patterns.

I’m a lumper by inclination, and I’ll illustrate it here with reference to my aforementioned themes of grain breeding and politics.

First, the grain breeding. I’ve written critically in the past about efforts to breed high-yielding perennial grain crops in temperate climates. I won’t get deep into the issues but, lumper that I am, I think temperate herbaceous food plants basically fall into two categories: high yielding and short lived, or low yielding and long lived. Responding to my critique of their perennial grain breeding work, the splitters at the Land Institute say that every plant has a unique life history, and using artificial selection techniques they’re confident they can develop crops that will be just as high yielding as our present annual cereal crops, but long lived – and therefore more easily managed and less environmentally destructive in their consequences. I think they’ll most likely turn out to be wrong, because there are hard ecological trade-offs (those objective standards, those deeper underlying patterns) that they’re ignoring, which will forever obstruct a low input, low impact, high output agriculture. But, as I argue in my book (A Small Farm Future, pp.110-4), it doesn’t really matter if they’re wrong. In fact, I think an agriculture of lower yielding perennial grains is positively advantageous. So not only do I think they’re wrong, I hope they’re wrong.

Hold that thought a minute while I turn to the second issue. A few years back as Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign started firing up, various commentators (including me) took to debating whether Trump was a fascist. John Michael Greer wrote around that time that the parallel was absurd:

“Fascism…is a specific, tightly defined political and economic philosophy, and it’s not at all hard to look up what exactly Fascism was, what specific economic policies it pursued, and so on. Do that and you’ll find that Donald Trump is not a fascist.”

This, of course, is a classic case of splitism, with an appeal to objective standards thrown into the mix in the idea of ‘looking up’ what fascism was. But for better or worse you can rarely close the book just by ‘looking up’ what something ‘is’ in human affairs, even though more scholarly thinkers than Greer have traversed similar ground. Dylan Riley, for example, has written a lengthy essay excavating with great erudition all the many reasons why early 21st century US politics is completely different from the early 20th century European politics that spawned fascism. He’s absolutely correct in every respect. But, meh, he’s a splitter … and Trump is still a fascist.

Actually, let me qualify that. In the light of those earlier discussions and what we’ve seen of Trump and his administration since, I’d say that Trump himself is not a fascist, or indeed in full possession of any structured political thought. But his administration and the wider Republican party seems largely to have become fascist, at least by the lights of this lumper definition supplied by Primo Levi, who knew a thing or two about the subject:

“Every age has its own fascism, and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many”1

I concede that the term ‘fascism’ is so widely attached to disparate positions – not least by right-wingers in relation to the left – that it’s in serious danger of succumbing to complete lumpist vacuity (like most political words, in fact). But I think the word, and Levi’s capacious definition, are worth retaining nonetheless to keep in mind the shadowed skeins of thought linking the fascisms of the early 20th century to the fascisms of the early 21st – the common ancestry, if you will.

And so we come to the impending 2020 US election. If Trump is re-elected, then I think I’ll have yet fewer compunctions than I did in 2016 in calling it a vote for fascism. I’ve seen more fully, as I hadn’t yet in 2016, the racism, the self-serving nostalgia, the forced silences, the buttressing of privilege and the naked will to power. In 2016 it was possible to write that liberals were just crying wolf. But it turns out that Trump is a wolf, if only perhaps a mangy outrider of a fiercer pack to come.

But enough has already been written about Trump and fascism. The more interesting question is whether if Biden is elected – as I fervently hope he is – a Democratic administration will also debouch ultimately into fascism. The point I’m making isn’t about the rights or wrongs of the political positions taken by any particular factions or individuals among the Democrats. Rather, it’s a doubt on my part that in a future of climate-induced dislocation, energy and material scarcity, disorderly economic contraction and polarized political mobilization, any regime trying to maintain power in a centralized nation-state, commiting itself to capitalist growth and seeking the assent of the governed will be able to avoid the trappings of fascism in Primo Levi’s sense.

So while perhaps I’m lumping too much here, I think it may prove useful to classify the politics we’re likely to see in the years to come in the ‘west’ or Global North into two kinds: fascist and non-fascist. Unless they change radically, the programmes of most of the mainstream parties currently will probably put them in the former camp (this certainly applies to the paler imitation of US politics going on here in Britain as the main parties increasingly resemble involuted theocracies obsessed with their own internal cosmologies rather than aspiring managers of an ever more unmanageable welfare capitalism).

The story of the non-fascist alternatives is yet to be written. But I don’t think it can be a story of centralized power, plentiful supplies of grain (perennial or otherwise) from breadbasket places like Kansas and cheap low-carbon energy oiling the wheels of locality-busting global commerce. In that sense it seems likely that the hard ecological trade-offs confronted by grain breeders and other architects of the energy supply will shape another hard trade-off that’s emerging in our politics. The story of trying to hold the existing political centre will be a story of fascism, Caesarism, bread and circuses. Whereas the non-fascist story will be one of trying to create livelihoods as convivially as possible, mostly from the local resources – human and non-human – to hand. The splitter in me thinks there could be many different kinds of convivial local society of this sort. The lumper in me thinks that almost all of them will be geared to the basic rhythms of the small mixed farm. And on that note, perhaps I’ll conclude with another line from Primo Levi: if not now, when?


  1. Quoted here. Thanks to Andrew for this excellent reference.