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.

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?

Note

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

A Small Farm Future – Questions Answered, Part II

Continuing my theme from last time with brief answers to questions posed at the online launch events for my book.

Settlement geography

Q. How important is the potential of city people to help out on the farm on a part-time basis, as happened in the past? Do we need new platforms or services to enable this to happen?

Potentially important. Certainly, there’s a need for people to be more fully engaged with and supportive of the food and farming system – ‘we are all farmers’, as I put it in the book. So, yes to new platforms and services, and to deeper engagement of cities, towns and villages with their hinterlands. And that could certainly involve city people helping out part-time on farms – though it would probably be of limited immediate practical use to the farmers, and more a means of building understanding longer term.

Ultimately, though, I think we’re in for a period of ruralisation or deurbanisation, and we need to devote a lot of our energies to thinking about that and managing it well.

 

 Q. Urban living is unhealthy and unsustainable, small farming is healthy and sustainable. So, what sort of movements/policies are needed to help move people out of urban areas in the Global North to rural small farms in an equitable way?

In Part IV of the book I discuss how this might happen less in terms of policies from the centre or even in terms of coordinated ‘bottom up’ movements but more in terms of the opportunities arising as centralized states begin to lose their grip, large urban-to-rural population movements develop by default and people have to improvise new ways of creating livelihoods. But it’s also worth thinking about how all this might play out in the form of small farmer movements – something that I plan to write about here in the near future.

But if I had any political power within central or local government right now, these are the kind of things I’d be trying to do: creating economic disincentives to urban and rural land speculation/landlordism; building welfare/human services as a counterpoint to increasing gift and inheritance taxes; framing planning policy to incentivize nucleated settlements with plenty of small-scale, mixed holdings, including Welsh-style ‘One Planet Development’ policies everywhere; supporting local, rural infrastructure; retaining all publicly-owned farmland/green space for affordable agriculture/horticulture; incentivizing the creation of allotments and community gardens; investing heavily in horticultural education; developing high carbon taxes.

I think all of these would help push in that direction.

 

 Q.Many people have recently found they can do their white collar work from home: do you think there is a place for groups of people doing both remote white collar work AND small scale farming? And if so, would the balance need to be seasonal (in our UK climate)?

Definitely a place for it in the present state of things – especially if we’re talking about decommodified, self-reliant production (smallholding, essentially) rather than commercial farming as such. But with that comes the need to think about the implications for rural gentrification – something we’ve touched on in this blog but I hope to write about in more detail at some point soon. Managed well, white collar workers moving to rural areas can help to stimulate local farm economies. Managed badly, it risks creating social conflict.

Longer term, I’d argue there’s a need to rethink the balance and the rewards of white-collar work and farm work. Less of the former, more of the latter, as much as possible in its more rewarding forms. Energetic considerations will most likely push in this direction, perhaps making white-collar work a harder option as time goes on.

As to seasonality, there are ways of trying to stretch the workload across the year but, yes, a business trip in May is probably out. A quick Zoom call before you head to the seedling tunnel may be manageable, however. For as long as we still have Zoom…

 Q. What’s your view on Holmgren’s idea of retro fitting suburbia?

I haven’t read his book, so I can’t really comment. In a UK context, I don’t think retrofitting suburbia alone while maintaining existing urban and rural structures would be adequate to the task before us (actually, I doubt it would be in Australia either, but there may be more suburban green space to play with there). But I do firmly believe that it’s a good idea for people to make their neighbourhoods more resilient and productive of local livelihoods whatever their neighbourhood happens to be, so in that context retrofitting suburbia seems sensible.

 

Politics

Q. Just to say I can’t wait to read the book when I come out of Agriculture Bill hell – and to ask Chris how he aims to get politicians to read and listen to the sense of what it says.

Thank you! How to get politicians to listen is something I’ve been struggling with for years… The way I’ve written Part IV of the book, where I talk about political transformation, perhaps emerges from my failure to find an answer, or in fact for anyone else to find an answer – other than the charmed circle who do have their ear. Basically, I don’t think they will listen – but I think they’ll be increasingly overwhelmed by events that they’re no longer able to control in the ways they’re accustomed to, and in this sense they’ll become less relevant. In fact, we’ll all be overwhelmed by these events. But, unlike politicians, we’ll still be relevant – at least to ourselves and within our localities. The challenges we’ll face in all this are profound, but it’s on that slim ground that I try to build a case for political renewal in Part IV of the book.

Q. Peasant uprising?

Q. Sociocracy

Q.Citizens assemblies are useful

Questions and statements coming at me thick and fast about the means of political renewal here! In brief, I’m sympathetic to peasant uprisings but in many parts of the world – including here in Britain – there aren’t many peasants as such, and the big question for me is what happens after the uprisings. The outcomes of the uprisings in the countries covered by Eric Wolf in his Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century haven’t exactly been rosy… Nevertheless, I do argue that we need to engage seriously with peasant experiences (Chapter 3 ‘The return of the peasant’). Maybe things like sociocracy and citizen assemblies can help us address the issues that arise post-uprising, post-peasantization or however else we describe the rebalancing that will happen (I touch on citizen’s assemblies in the context of civic republicanism in Chapter 18). So these are definitely discussions I’d like to continue.

 

The land

Q. To dig or not to dig?

In her book Alternative Agriculture: A History from the Black Death to the Present Day, historian Joan Thirsk describes the arguments in 17th century England over exactly this question – so it’s a debate that’s long been with us! Looking again at her analysis, it occurs to me that in permaculture circles we often use the same word – ‘tillage’ – to refer to digging a garden or ploughing a field, but actually they’re really different. Ploughing (and power harrowing) at landscape scales has the potential to be really destructive of soil, albeit in some places more than others, whereas that’s far less true of well managed ‘spade gardening’. In Part II of the book, I discuss the ecological reasons why digging and high-yielding food crops go together historically – high-yielding no till remains an uneasy compromise. So, to dig or not to dig … the jury’s still out, after all these years! But what I would say is that on garden or small farm scales digging is less problematic environmentally than at farm/landscape scales. And also that no dig systems that rely on importing a lot of compost from outside the system may be problematic in terms of generalizability and whole lifecycle ecological impact.

Q. I watched Kiss the Ground on Netflix yesterday. Great film and I was really impressed with how the regenerative rancher in particular articulated a really compelling economic narrative that holds the regenerative farm up as a far more economically viable (as well as much more healthful and enjoyable) farm model when compared with any big-ag enterprise that are miserable, deathly, unsustainable and subsidy dependent. I’m curious how small-scale, diverse and regenerative farming is being pitched as the most compelling economic solution of our time – the potential for many many thousands of long-term jobs in all manner of ecosystem restoration enterprises including, central to that, farming enterprises. When thousands are losing their jobs in unsustainable sectors, it seems to me this is the key argument to be made to a neo-liberal capitalist government. It is economically irrefutably logical.

I’ve not yet seen that film – I’ve heard mixed reports! What I would say (as I discuss in Part II of the book) is that regenerative ranching is probably easier to do than regenerative farming, but unfortunately regenerative ranching isn’t going to feed the world. Still, I very much endorse the second part of the statement. In an ecologically damaged world where the engine of economic growth is faltering, creating labour-intensive jobs in ecosystem restoration (with farming as the centrepiece) is an economic/ecologic win/win, and we need to broadcast this as loudly as we can.

 

Q. How do we restore “wrecked” or degraded global farmland – 40% no longer arable – 25% degraded?

Some may cavil at the figures – how do we define ‘degraded’, and can there be a simple binary of degraded/undegraded? – this is something I touch on briefly in Part I of the book. Nevertheless, it seems to me hard to dispute there are current farming practices that we cannot sustain long term.

No doubt there can be many different answers as to how to restore ‘wrecked’ farmland at the level of technical detail. But in general they largely boil down to two. One is to leave it alone and let nature take care of it. The other is to farm it more thoughtfully, usually with agroecological practices that typically involve a mixture of trees, well-managed pasture and well-managed, intensively cultivated (dug, but not ploughed?) cropland. I think this would involve a lot more people emplacing themselves in local farmed landscapes to produce personal livelihoods for themselves, while noticing and accepting the ecological feedback they get locally in response to their manipulations of the landscape. In other words, it would be a small farm future – and the prospects for humanity seem to me quite bleak unless people are widely able to emplace themselves as local ecological actors in this way.

A Small Farm Future – Questions Answered, Part I

Last week my publisher Chelsea Green hosted a webinar to launch my book and I then spoke about it at the Permaculture Convergence. I’ve struggled a little with the online format, but I appreciated the engaged comments from the audiences at both events who I knew were out there somewhere. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to answer all the questions in the time available, so I thought I’d reproduce the questions here and attempt to answer them, if only briefly. The book contains more in-depth discussion of most of the points raised. I’d strongly recommend buying a copy…

I’ve grouped the questions into these six overarching headings:

  1. Food & farm system economics
  2. Labour questions
  3. Property & access to land
  4. Settlement geography
  5. Politics
  6. Caring for the land

I’m going to work through headings 1-3 in this post, and 4-6 in the next one, which I’ll post in a couple of days.

Food & farm system economics

Q. I have recently been suggesting that the price of food should double – but how do we then ensure that we are not increasing food poverty?

Sounds about right as a minimum. The key is to consider food prices in relation to the price of everything else – land, housing, labour, energy, transport, welfare. For sure, if food prices increased without any other economic adjustments, food poverty would increase. But we need to rethink those other sectors too. That’s something I do, albeit in fairly general terms, in the book. I think we also need to decommodify food production considerably, so that non-commercial, locally self-reliant food production is more of an option for many people, including poor people – ‘recapturing the garden’, as I call it in the book, after Steven Stoll. If we get it right, food poverty and nutritional deficits will decrease.

 

Q. As the current large scale food system has to start internalising its costs, how do you think its affordability would balance out with agroecological production models

A similar question to the previous one, perhaps? My view is that if the existing food system fully internalised its carbon, soil, water, health and pollution costs we’d probably be questioning the affordability of anything other than agroecological production models. At the same time, I want to avoid an overly dualistic ‘mainstream bad – agroecological good’ framing. I argue in the book that farming of all kinds has to confront difficult dilemmas to which there are no perfect solutions.

 

Q. In Covid I’ve reinvented my not for profit company into a local produce wholesaler called Brighton Food Factory, to support small farmers and supply community food projects. Is that a service that small farmers need? To create the bridge from small farmer to food citizen, not just as a consumer but to shorten the supply chain and help people understand the upsides and challenges of local, small farm production?

The way food commodity markets work in my experience is that most of the financial value is captured at the point of retail sale, which is why small-scale farmers tend to sell direct to customers – volumes aren’t high enough to make a living from wholesale prices. But this does mean we spend a lot of time on the retail side of our operations when we could be farming. If other organisations took on the marketing, this could be a boon – but the question is how best to create these collaborative rather than competitive relationships between production and marketing. If your venture is succeeding at that, I’m sure there will be a lot of wider interest.

I think people sometimes over-emphasise the marketing difficulties facing small farm enterprises at the expense of emphasising the difficulties of production in the face of wider economic forces. The key problem facing small farmers probably isn’t a lack of sympathetic people offering to sell their produce. But that said, your points about creating bridges and public understanding do seem vital to me…

 

Labour

Q. If you talk about the global equity and the creation of livelihoods for small scale farmers – how can this be created for small scale farms which (often) heavily depend on volunteer work?

Not that many small commercial farms I know depend heavily on volunteer work long-term, because it can be rather a mixed blessing. But, as I said above, I’m in favour of considerable decommodification, and here ‘volunteer work’ broadly conceived can play various roles compatible with livelihood creation. Generally, small-scale local agrarianism isn’t well suited to generating salaried work, but it is well suited to generating livelihoods. I talk about this quite a bit in the book.

 

Q. Are farm volunteers (e.g. CSAs) included in the 1% who work on the land?

(Note: I mentioned in a talk that about 1% of the UK workforce was employed in agriculture). No, that figure encompasses only salaried and self-employed agricultural workers. So the true amount of work going into the production of food consumed in the UK is higher – not only CSA volunteers and similar, plus home gardeners, but fisherfolk and all the people working abroad whose labour is embodied in the food we import.

 

Q. I know you like to calculate Chris (perhaps your book address this): What is your take on how big a share of the population should/will have to be involved in farming if it is small scale, ecological and based on renewable resources (under European conditions). Or put otherwise, how many people could an empowered small scale farmer produce food for?

Is that you Gunnar? You know me down to a T! Yes, the book does address this for the UK – and the answer is … 15% of the working-age population working directly as farmers, or one farmer per twelve people altogether. As per the previous question, that ignores volunteer and backyard labour and fisherfolk. But it’s based on meeting national food needs entirely, without imports. It also ignores the various rural trades supportive of farming work. Of course, it’s only a rough guess…

 

Q. With the poor response by the general public to Pick for Britain and British Summer Fruits jobs in the face of (the recent) crisis, how realistic is a wider small farm approach and the need for more labour compared to our current industrialised farming practices?

At the moment, not very realistic – though the crisis seems to have changed the narrative about small farm localism a little for the better. But in the longer term I think it’s unrealistic to expect that our current industrialised farming practices will continue. Most of my book is addressed to that tension between the large farm present and the small farm future. I argue that agrarian localism will emerge in the disorder arising from the decline of the current global political economy – though it can happen in various ways, some better than others.

 

Property and access to land

Q. Do you talk in your book about new ways of looking at land ownership?

Yes – especially in Chapter 13 (‘Complicating the Commons: Holding and Sharing the Land’). Though, as the saying goes, there’s nothing new under the sun. So many of the ‘new ways’ of looking at it that I discuss are actually old ways.

 

Q. Recommoning please!

OK, not a question as such, but a statement. And one that I agree with. But it’s complicated … hence my chapter ‘Complicating the commons’.

 

Q. As someone looking to enter into small scale farming it is clear just how difficult it is to access land in the first place, due to a wide range of factors, not least the price of land. What do you think can be practically done to encourage new entrant farmers, and specifically younger people, into farming, when it is currently so difficult for people to make that transition?

There are various organisations trying to ease routes into farming and people can be quite inventive at finding their way in, but ultimately I agree it’s difficult and the price of land is a major stumbling block. One way or another, there’s going to have to be a major reconfiguration of access to land – I discuss this in Chapter 13, and also in Chapters 17-20.

 

Q. Property developers artificially inflate value of land. Village of Cassington that has allotments at centre of village life is about to lose this invaluable food and community resource for local people as Blenheim Palace estate plans to build housing on the land. What can be done about this sort of situation?

As per my previous answer, I discuss this in some detail in the book – you’ll just have to read it! But I don’t claim to have all the answers and I’ve been unable to go into the issues at the level of deep policy detail, so this is an ongoing discussion I’m interested in having with people.

 

Q. In the UK, many pubs, cinemas, community centres etc have been registered as Assets of Community Value, giving local people the opportunity (although unfortunately not the right) to buy them rather than see them converted into accommodation or other uses for profit. Have any small farms been listed as community assets under the ACV legislation? Could be a great way to protect small farms and a way to exit on retirement if passing on to family members isn’t an option.

Interesting, and not something I’m very familiar with, so I can’t answer the question about small farms and ACVs. My guess, though, would be not many because land inheritance is the norm. I suggest in Chapter 13 that this will need to change, but the wriggle room for achieving this is extremely tight. Currently, the UK planning system generally protects farmland from development, albeit often in cumbersome ways that are obstructive towards a small farm future. But I get the sense that the present government would like to remove planning controls altogether, and this would be more obstructive still.

A sociological farmer speaks…

With my book launching officially today in the UK, it seems a good time to start the cycle of blog posts about its themes that I’m planning to run over the next few months. Unlike my usual output here, my intention is for these posts to be short and frequent – but we all know where the road of good intentions leads…

Ah, the book, the book! When I started writing it, I naively thought it would give me the space to go deeper into all the major themes that I’ve explored on this blog. But, later than I should have done, I realized that a book is a much briefer thing than nine years of accumulated blog posts. So then I thought that the book might stand as a kind of pure distillation of my considered thoughts, at least on the things I chose to write about, like some miniature jewel in its box, perfect after its own fashion. Of course, that’s not true either – because I can’t write perfectly, and because there are so many different ways of seeing things even from the viewpoint of a single person. And time and ideas always flow on.

Still, the book is something, an intervention at a particular time in things that seem to me important. All the other things it could have been, all the words that have sloughed off it in files called things like “Part 2.ver6” that languish on my hard drive are suddenly neither here nor there. The book has left me and begun its independent journey in the wider world.

And it’s funny to see me and my biography enfolded third-person in that journey. In various online locations I’ve been described as a ‘sociologist and farmer’ or a ‘former social scientist and farmer’. These labels probably represent my strange career as well as anything. The longest salaried job I ever held down was as a lecturer in sociology, for six years – which I guess makes me a sociologist, despite the fact that I’ve never actually studied it as such. And since I’m no longer paid a salary or have a job title, perhaps indeed I’m now a ‘former social scientist’. I just can’t stop myself from thinking about society, though.

‘Farmer’ is the steadier label. On the one hand it seems a rather grand title to apply to the practical work I do as an aspiring shepherd now troubling my way through sheepless nights, as a former market grower, dilettante gardener, amateur plumber, tree-hugging chainsaw-wielder, tractor-botherer, blunt scythesman, weed-eater, hay-maker, grass-raker and mechanically-challenged engineer. But on the other, I think it’s important to resist breathing further life into that mythical imposter, the ‘proper farmer’. A planning officer at Mendip District Council once told me that I wasn’t one of those. When I asked her who counted among their number she said that if I had to ask, then I wasn’t one. Well, I’m not asking any more. As I outline on page 8 of the book, we are all eaters, we are all farmers.

In the webinar on Tuesday, Peter Macfadyen made the point that my book isn’t really about farming. I do have a fair bit to say about farming in it, especially in Part II, but I think he’s right – and it’s largely because the major problems we face aren’t really about farming. Nor are they about energy or technology, which I also touch on in the book. Fundamentally, they’re about how people organize themselves collectively, how we think about our place in the wider world, and what we think life is about. What better background for probing that than social science?

But what’s perhaps of greatest import are the points where our human self-conceptions confront the wider world – and here farming looms large. Since I’m hopeless at multi-tasking, how fortunate, then, that I’m a ‘former’ social scientist and a farmer, albeit improperly! And how curious that I should just happen to have these two attributes that uniquely qualify me to write my own book…

That’s probably just about enough for now by way of an intro to my book. I daresay important books on our current predicaments could be written by people with other CVs (agronomist/shaman; anarchist/mediator) but I’m afraid I’m stuck with my perspective as a (former) social scientist and an (improper) farmer. I hope you’ll join me in my subsequent posts as I work through the numerous implications of this happy duality…

…but just to say before I get into the meat of it that in my next couple of posts I plan, firstly, to try and answer some of the interesting questions that were posed at the webinar and that regrettably we didn’t have time to answer and, secondly, to post something topical in early November provisionally entitled “What growing edible cereal crops can teach us about fascism”.

Small Farm Future – the book

The publicity wagon for my book is well and truly on the road, so along with having to get outside occasionally to do some actual farming I don’t think I’m going to be able to put any new posts up here for a few weeks.

But I’d like to give a special invite to followers of this blog to join me for the launch webinar of the book at 6.30pm UK time on Tue 13 October (1.30pm Eastern Time in the US), where I’ll be in conversation with Peter Macfadyen (ex-mayor of my hometown of Frome, author of Flatpack Democracy, gardener and mover and shaker extraordinaire) and Jyoti Fernandes (farmer, food and social justice activist, co-founder of the Land Workers’ Alliance and also mover and shaker extraordinaire). It should be an interesting hour.

The webinar is free, but you need to sign up to it here.

I’d also like to thank all the commenters on this blog. A good deal that’s in the book I’ve learned from you, and it would certainly never have been written if I hadn’t found such a great online community to encourage me and discuss ideas with.

If you’re interested, I did a brief interview about the book yesterday on the Alexis Conran show on Times Radio (I’m on in the last 15 minutes), and I should soon be on the Hardy Report podcast, time tba.

Publication date for the book is 15 October in the UK and 21 October in the US. If you’d like to pre-order the book you can do so from your local indie bookstore (such as the excellent Hunting Raven Books here in Frome) or through various online retailers including hive.co.uk and Waterstones in the UK; Chelsea Green and Indiebound in the USA; or the Book Depository worldwide. Please do share it around your networks and write an online review of it if you consider it worthy.

I’m juggling with various email circulation lists relating to the book which I’ve generated through a semi-mystical process from my online contact list. It’s likely that some of the regular commenters here at Small Farm Future will be on the lists, whereas others won’t be. This has nothing to do with any judgment on my part, but is purely a manifestation of the aforementioned mystique over which I have limited control. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll probably be appraised of what’s going on with the book anyway – especially if you read the My Book page. But if you’d like to be on the mailing list for news and reviews about the book and don’t get an email from me about it by the end of the coming week, feel free to drop me a line asking to be on the list and I’ll see to it.

Once the furies of the launch are over, I’m planning to write a series of blog posts over the next few months that work their way through the book from start to finish – explaining, agonising and expanding on the various themes that are laid out within its pages. I hope you’ll join me in the debate!

Chris

Building regional autonomies for a small farm future

The first talk I’m giving in relation to my new book is at the Northern Real Farming Conference, at 7.30pm on Tuesday (29 Sept). Although I’m not from or in the North, the conference is nevertheless an appropriate launchpad for my book because I suggest in it that in the future people are going to have to furnish their livelihoods more regionally and locally than most do today, and that this is going to involve a lot of rethinking – of agriculture, of industry, of politics and society more generally, and indeed of what we mean when we talk about the local or the regional. There are few better forums for getting going with this rethinking process than a regional farming conference.

My talk is going to be fairly general in its scope. I’m hoping that the audience discussion will add more local colour and detail to it and fit its themes to the specifics of Britain’s north. But I also hope that anyone reading this webpage may do the same in relation to wherever in the world they live, and however they think of their locality and their region. Perhaps, in the comments to this post or elsewhere, this will help to generate some worthwhile rethinking of agrarian localism.

And boy do we need that rethinking! Wider issues like climate change, energy scarcities, economic stagnation and political fragmentation are already reconfiguring our world, but we can only guess at the local adjustments this will demand of us – which makes it hard to know where to put our energies and what kinds of institutions to support and nurture. Often, as a grower and smallholder I feel that I should probably just get my head down and try to produce food in a low impact way. But that alone isn’t going to be enough. Below, I lay out five broad themes (and some more specific pointers) that I’d suggest need addressing everywhere as we rethink regionalism and localism for a small farm future:

  1. Producing for local needs, instead of for commodity markets.
  • in (northern) Britain, this probably means going easier on livestock and cereals, and harder on woodland, horticulture, fertility-building fallows, fibre crops, seeds, medicines and general trades and inputs into farming.
  • it also means entering a steep learning curve on low impact, local farming, involving a thorough rethinking of scale, labour input and agricultural education
  • and it may mean disregarding recent historical land use patterns. Where I live, for example, there’s a strong recent history of dairy farming which partly has to do with the fact that grass grows well here (harking back to the quaint days when that actually mattered…) but also with the fact that the opening of the railways to London created a demand for fresh milk in the capital
  1. Rethinking settlement geography
  • cheap energy has broken the links of mutual service between town, village and countryside. How can we restore them?
  • in the future, we will probably see ruralisation or deurbanisation in the face of new energy, climate and economic realities. Population dispersal is harder to achieve than concentration – how can this be managed?

     3. Rethinking landownership

  • ruralisation may put inflationary pressure on farmland prices to the benefit of existing landowners, exacerbating inequalities
  • this is potentially counterbalanced by the sheer weight of a new rural population of smallholders, perhaps articulating its interests as a class, the weakness of the political centre and the residual influence of liberal rights ideas
  1. Local identities
  • in what ways might local or regional identities help or hinder reconstructing a renewable agrarian localism? (Personally, I’m dubious about most existing identities in this respect, in the North and elsewhere: northern, Yorkshire/Lancashire, East Riding/West Riding, urban/rural, ‘indigenous’ or ‘immigrant’, here first, the ‘real people’
  • almost everyone is a child of a failing economic modernism – can we forge new identities as farmers engaged in creating renewable livelihoods in place?
  • civic republicanism as a political tradition to inform new identity-making, not based on ideas of a pre-existing ‘natural community’. The politics of ‘here we all are’

 5. Wider interactions

  • in a supersedure state situation with semi-autonomy of, say, the north from London, how would relations between region and centre work?
  • and between regions?

On the efficiency of my scythe

The time is nearly upon us when the feature-length version of my musings here will be released upon an unsuspecting world – A Small Farm Future (the book) will be available from 15 October in the UK and 21 October in the US. Various launch events are in the offing, and I’ll be gearing the blog for a while to come to riffing on various themes from the book. So watch this space…

Meanwhile, I have one final bit of outstanding business to attend to before turning my attention to the book – though in many ways this post serves as well as anything as an introduction to its themes. Whereas my last couple of posts addressed the politics of an agrarian localist future, this one addresses farm scales, styles and technologies in such a future. Again, it comes in the form of a critical engagement with a specific individual, in this case grower and small-scale farmer Seth Cooper, who I debated with a little while ago online. I promised I’d respond further to some of his points, hence the present post. Apologies if my excerpting of his comments and interpolation of replies seems combative (I’m going to try to stop doing this kind of thing!) – hopefully it will also be illuminating, and my thanks to Seth for drawing out this discussion.

Our debate focused in large part on the kind of tools and equipment appropriate to farming, small farming in particular, so I’m going to go with that in this post – but hopefully it’ll work obliquely as an entry into wider issues. Even more specifically, we talked about the virtues or otherwise of the scythe. Here, I find myself in a somewhat false position, since I’m far from an expert scythesman and I don’t use one all that much – whereas I do have a tractor (which I don’t use much either – mostly just for compost management, which I’ll come to in a second…). But I’ll happily speak up for the scythe over the tractor, and this is the direction my farming is going. For his part, Seth finds little place for either scythes or tractors in his agrarian vision:

“A tractor could be dispensed with in all fruit and vegetable cultivation that I’m aware of…Proof of this is all the people growing food for market without tractors in developed countries (where tractors are abundant).”

To get an accurate picture of the dynamics of any unit of production (a farm, a factory, a household, a town, a country) you need to look at the energy and material flows ‘upstream’ that provide it with its inputs, the ones in-house that enable it to generate its products, and the ones ‘downstream’ that carry its products and its wastes to their final destination.

I know plenty of small horticultural operations that don’t themselves have a tractor in-house (or similar fossil-fuel intensive equipment – I don’t think we should get too hung up on tractors per se). But all of them make implicit use of them upstream or downstream (importing compost, manure or fertilizer and exporting produce to market). The energy and material dynamics of most small commercial farms in the rich countries are not at present that different from large farms in this respect.

But in future I think there will be a lot more people working in agriculture or horticulture on small farms, serving more local markets (starting with their own households), with much less of this extrinsic, implicit fossil energy at their command. My guess is that in this situation, there’ll be a lot more people using scythes.

Seth again:

“whether a scythe is more “efficient” than a tractor regarding grain production should be an empirical, not theoretical, question.”

No quarrel there. I drew Seth’s attention to a little bit of research I did on the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) of different mowing technologies I conducted on my holding, in which the scythe comes out top. Seth wrote:

“your experiment 1) ignores the time required to master proficiency with a scythe — I’m sure you know using it is harder than it looks — in comparison to using a machine and 2) has nothing to do with grain production, which is the example I pointed to and which involves much more than mowing.”

We can go down these routes, but there’s only going to be one winner. Sure, let’s figure in the time (or, better, energy) it takes to be proficient with the use and maintenance of a scythe. And let’s add the time/energy it takes to make the scythe and the food that fuels it, or to earn the necessary money. Now let’s figure in the time/energy it takes to learn to drive a powered vehicle, add in learning the extra skills of tractor-driving, learning the extra skills of maintaining and fixing the tractor and its machinery, and then the time spent earning the money to buy the tractor, its spare parts and its fuel.

The mechanized route isn’t going to turn out optimal here on anything except labour input per unit output. It won’t beat the scythe on time input, EROEI or capital input. The reason that you see farmers nowadays with combines and not with scythes is because energy and capital are cheap, labour is dear, and most people don’t work the land. Like it or not, I think all this is going to change in the future.

Regarding grain production, on a small scale I usually find cutting cereal stalks with a scythe easier than cutting grass because it’s less dense, with less silica, though I can’t speak to the practicalities of hand-harvesting grain on anything bigger than garden scale. And yes, there’s more to grain harvesting than mowing. There’s also more to hay-making than mowing. But mowing is what scythes do. We could extend the analysis to rakes, wheelbarrows, flails and so on and compare the energy efficiency to combine harvesters, grain trailers, seed dryers etc. It would be a bold punter who’d bet the combine would come out on top.

But I’d like to turn the issue of grain production back around. Sure, intensive market gardeners don’t need tractors or (probably) scythes on their holdings. But they’re doing something pretty specialist. Take a town or a region and suppose that it has to produce almost all its food and fibre, and the inputs for them, locally, with minimal exotic inputs like steel and diesel. It’ll need to produce more than high value vegetables locally, and it can’t easily afford tractors. Suddenly the scythe – probably among the most energy-efficient tools ever invented by humankind – starts to seem like a worthwhile part of the local agricultural toolkit.

But why imagine this kind of self-reliance? Seth writes:

Suggesting I should imagine my farm with zero fossil fuel inputs isn’t exactly a useful place to start thinking about sustainable farming. While I have no tractor, I use some battery-operated tools, reusable plastic tarps, containers, and irrigation tubing, and a gas-powered push mower…I don’t see a world in which we don’t have greenhouses, irrigation, and power tools with plastic components. On the other hand, if we convert most to all food production to no-till, we could reduce the need for tractors and plasticulture almost entirely.

Whereas I’d say on the contrary that imagining a farm with zero fossil fuel inputs is an excellent place to start thinking about sustainable farming. Not an excellent place to start doing it within the present economy, but certainly an excellent place to start thinking about it, because it concentrates the mind on the dynamics of the whole system, and its vulnerabilities and external dependencies.

Here, we come to the crux of the whole debate – which is similar to the one I had recently with Maarten Boudry. If you think that the present climatic, energetic, economic and political structuring of the world is destined more-or-less to endure long-term, then Seth is probably right – scythes will mostly be museum pieces, and small-scale farming will be all about innovating small, efficient niches around the mainstream global food and farming system.

But if, like me, you don’t think those things are destined to endure long-term, then it’s probably worth imagining your farm with zero fossil fuel inputs as a starting point for thinking through how resilient it might be to future events. It may even be worth investing in a scythe. It’s probably also worth pondering the possibility that no-till won’t survive beyond the fossil fuel age, except perhaps at domestic scales. But that’s an argument for another day.

Seth writes:

I’d like to see needless toil reduced, without sacrificing humanity. [In] small farming as it actually exists in developed countries [t]here is toil, but also much effort to reduce that toil with sustainable and low-capital innovations. In my opinion, an eco-socialist future gestates in these developments, not in some fantasy of scythe-wielding neopeasants.

I’d also like to see needless toil reduced, but on this point we’d probably need to spend time unpicking both our respective definitions of ‘needless’ and our respective definitions of ‘toil’. We’d also need to take a global perspective – as I see it, there’s an awful lot of needless toil among poor people, especially poor people in poor countries, as a result of the toil-reducing technologies in the rich ones. So visions for a toil-free, sustainable, eco-socialist future need to provide a plausible account of its underlying energetics, economics and politics at a global level of a kind I’ve not yet seen (except in ecomodernist visionings … but I don’t find those ones plausible). Otherwise, I’m going to stick with my less fantastical vision of sustainable and low-capital innovations (scythes) in the hands of free and semi-autonomous political actors (neopeasants).

I can’t help feeling that scythes are less widely used in gardens and small farms than is warranted on strict cost-benefit terms because they have an image problem of the kind that stalks through Seth’s phrase “fantasy of scythe-wielding neopeasants”. The scythe seems redolent of agrarian ‘backwardness’ – something I wrote about a few years back in this post on the iconography of my scythe and discuss in my forthcoming book. But this issue only arises because of our modern culture’s hang-up with notions of progress and backwardness. Ask not whether your scythe looks modern, but whether it cheaply and successfully mows the darned crop.

Here, and (almost) finally, we come to the issue of innovation. In response to my grumbles about the modern obsession in the agricultural sector (and in fact in every other sector) with this troublesome concept, Seth writes:

Why wouldn’t farmers want to innovate their cultural practices? Farmers knew nothing of microbiology a hundred years back. Now they do, and if they’re smart, they can adopt techniques that harness microbiological processes to increase yields, pest resistance, etc

This is all true, and I’m not against innovation as such, provided the pros and cons, the winners and the losers, from the innovation are reckoned honestly. The mythology of innovation in our present capitalist society is that it saves people from work they don’t like to do and makes them richer. That’s sometimes so, but the other side of that coin needs more emphasis: innovation removes people from work they do like to do and makes them often poorer, or unhappier, and certainly less autonomous. Innovation in capitalist societies basically involves figuring out how to cut labour, destroy the competition or persuade people to buy more stuff. If we need innovation, we now need to innovate in some fundamentally different ways.

On this point, Seth writes, interestingly:

Every “advancement” in conventional modern agriculture has served only to decrease labor-inputs… at the expense of crop quality and social well-being. [T]he big ag paradigm has been marketed as less “backbreaking” … than traditional small-stead farming. Thus, big farm = less labor, small farm = more. For me, that’s a big ag narrative and modern market gardening proves that it’s untrue.

I agree with that, except for the last sentence. Small farm does equal more labour per unit area and per unit product (which is why most rich countries import a large proportion of their horticultural produce … and why modern diets involve too much refined carbs and oils, and not enough fruit and veg). The challenge is to show that this (along with less energy, less carbon, less water, less soil loss, more product and more fun per unit area) is precisely what makes small farming the wave of the future.

Beyond authenticity: the politics of agrarian localism, Part 2

This post continues with my theses on class, identity, protest, violence and the politics of agrarian localism begun in the previous one. For a definition of terms and acronyms used below, and reference to the people and articles it engages with, see the previous post. Comments welcome!

17. I’ll now turn to the success or otherwise of XR and other climate and social justice campaigns. Ruben suggests the addition of less carbon to the atmosphere is the appropriate criterion to judge climate activism. I think this is very stringent, but not unreasonable. It’s harder to come up with such a singular metric in the case of social justice but perhaps less dollars added to global GDP and to the total income and wealth of the world’s richest people might serve. By these measures, all climate and social justice activism has so far failed. Violent and nonviolent. Middle-class and working-class. White, black, indigenous. Global North and Global South. Governmental, NGO and civic. All of it. There have been many small victories against climate change and capitalism, but no large ones. Perhaps a worthy inference from this is to stop looking for who has epistemic or ontological privilege at protesting climate change and social justice and to frame the question differently.

18. Nevertheless, it’s true that people with OP are, deliberately or otherwise, offloading the consequences of climate change onto people with less of it – women, people of colour, indigenous people, working-class people, the Global South. These people indeed are in the forefront of climate activism in places like Standing Rock and are generating protests and activism which I think other people ought to support and from which they can learn.

19. …but inasmuch as it’s eminently likely that climate change and other crises will prompt widespread social collapse, the fact is that almost everyone will then be in the forefront of climate change activism, even if their activism amounts to no more than trying to save their own skins. Climate change activism is not as good a candidate for OCP-led activism as, say, patriarchy or racism. Indeed, maybe it’s even a candidate for OP-led activism, along the lines that Michelle (jestingly) suggested here a while back – rich white people ought to step up and take responsibility for dealing with their own crap.

20. Whatever the case, unlike Peter I don’t see violent activism in trying to block fossil fuel infrastructure as intrinsically superior to nonviolent activism in, say, trying to block MPs getting into parliament. To my mind, Peter’s view of the activism that’s needed to mitigate climate change is naïve (“climate change is made up of thousands of individual mega-projects like the ones those folks [at Standing Rock and Le ZAD] actually stopped”). This neglects the emergent properties of the political economy which manifest ultimately in Ruben’s outcome measure – more carbon added to the atmosphere, year after year. For this reason, I see the wider implications of the activism of both XR and Standing Rock/Le ZAD as quite similar, and mostly about political spectacle. I’ve got no particular problem with those who prefer violent Standing Rock type activism to nonviolent XR type activism. But I think spending time explaining why the former is superior to the latter is, as Bruce suggested, a waste of time. (Incidentally, I must confess my ignorance about the Standing Rock action, but this account of it gives me a different sense of its success, accommodation with extant power and violence than Peter’s).

21. I will try to push a little more at the idea of the emergent political economy and ontological privilege. As I see it, the extra-human world – the universe, the Earth – enjoys a hard (but not absolute…) ontological privilege over humanity. To anthropomorphize, it doesn’t care if we suffer or die, and it has lots of ways of making us suffer and die. Human culture – its farming, its textiles, its buildings, its medicine and so on – is a form of human OCP articulated against the OP of the extra-human world. And I’m grateful for it. But ultimately I don’t think humanity will be able to overturn this extra-human OP. We need to embrace our lack of privilege with respect to it. People often dismiss this view as ‘Malthusian’, but they’re mistaken. They haven’t done the reading.

22. I espouse a left-wing libertarianism in which all people can enjoy the capability of producing a fulfilling personal livelihood through acting on an ultimately constraining extra-human world, articulating an OCP shared empathically with other people against the world’s immoveable OP.

23. In my view, the best way of mediating this difficult trade-off between the OP of the world and humanity’s OCP, and the best way of organizing social justice in the near future, is by building small farm societies oriented towards local self-provisioning. Here are some of the things that such societies will need if they’re to prosper: the rule of law, widespread access to affordable property including farmland with agreed boundaries, widespread opportunities to generate a personal livelihood, a public sphere of political debate, ‘household responsibility’. Some of these things exist in practice or in theory in contemporary capitalist societies, but they will have to assume different forms in a just small farm future, and will need to be fought for through political activism. I see XR as a vehicle for developing that activism. But it draws me into some difficult judgments. What laws am I willing to break when I believe in the rule of law (although this just got easier now that the British government has itself chosen to deliberately break the law)? What property am I willing to violate when I am a property owner, and am not opposed in principle to private property? These difficulties don’t present themselves to people who believe in a redeeming political violence associated with AOCP.

24. Many people influenced by Marxism and notions of AOCP are apt to dismiss these attributes of small farm societies as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘petty bourgeois’. And they are apt to dismiss the kind of squeamishness I just expressed about the bounds of my activism as indicative of my own bourgeois status. When they do this, they relegate my politics to a mere outcome of my class position. As I see it, the world is more complex than this and its politics isn’t simply reducible to class or OP/OCP conflicts.

25. Concepts like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘petit bourgeois’ have no stable meaning, and statements like ‘advocacy for small-scale family farming involves a petit bourgeois worldview’ have no sociological purchase outside specific historical contexts. The same is true of almost all the phrases we deploy to make sociological sense of the world (men, white, middle-class, family, society) but some of them are so well grounded in our everyday experience of the social world that they seem quite unproblematic. This makes them especially treacherous.

26. But suppose the established order is overthrown, and the bourgeois brutes are killed along with concepts like law, property and family in some huge act of redeeming violence. How will the victors organize successful agrarian societies that put food on the table and manage the ecological base renewably? To speak plainly, I think they won’t have a clue. On past form, I think they will resort to meaningless slogans like ‘the common ownership of the means of production’ and ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ and then they will screw the hell out of people who do have a clue such as any remaining family farmers or peasantries unfortunate enough to fall within their jurisdiction. And they will screw the ecological base too. Then eventually, after much needless suffering and unrealizable efforts at political redemption, out of this chaos will emerge family farming, mixed private and common property regimes and household responsibility, because this is how you organize a sustainable human ecology against the OP of the non-human world. (See what I just did there: epistemic warranting is everywhere!)

27. So my proposal is to short-circuit these empty spaces of terror, fallacious concepts of AOCP and romantic views of political violence by working to create a socially just small farm future. To achieve this, I think it will be necessary to have a rich, pervasive, republican politicization of everyday life and livelihood that few of us in the contemporary world, regardless of our OP or lack of it, are currently prepared for or have much epistemic privilege in. In its local organizing, I see XR as one of the most promising developments in the political landscape of contemporary Britain that might be a vehicle for that kind of political mobilization. I don’t necessarily think it’s all that promising – just more promising than most of the other things around. Flatpack Democracy 2021 is another promising one.

28. In other words, I think it’s necessary to develop a civic republican politics of community. This politics does not try to erase or discount the social importance of human differentiations – gender, class, race etc. – into some comfortable notion of unconflicted communitas. It acknowledges OP. But it doesn’t consider the social world and political action to be essentially reducible to them.

29. The fact that few people and few communities globally have the skills, mindset and infrastructure to bring about a small farm future easily is an enormous obstacle. But it does have a silver lining – there’s no politics of authenticity, no AOCP, by which responsibility for creating functional agrarian societies can be abdicated to some category of ‘real people’ that our political theology invests with the capacity to bring about the necessary change. The real person is you, and whoever else is living in your neighbourhood. The necessary change is creating a material livelihood from the place where you live, without expecting help from elsewhere. Or moving where you can make a livelihood, and hoping that the people already living there aren’t too invested in a ‘real people’ narrative of their own that excludes you. (In Western Europe and North America there are troubling race and class dimensions to this, because the rural areas where urban people will be moving are usually whiter and richer than urban ones).

30. Joe writes that political protest is futile, and I basically agree. I don’t think XR will have much or any effect on the government’s policies about climate change. The main reason I think XR protests are worth doing anyway is inasmuch as they feed into Points 27 and 28. And, if I could make so bold, I think Joe is interested in these possibilities too on the basis of his long participation on this site and what seems to me an interest on his part in trying to find some kind of politics that will make the hard, climate-induced landings our societies are about to experience softer. His awareness of his OP is an important positive in this respect, I think.

31. Ruben writes “Did your arrest change anything? How difficult it was is not the measure of the impact”. I think this is true as measured by the criteria raised in points 17 and 30. It didn’t reduce carbon emissions, and it didn’t change government policy. I don’t think it’s necessarily true as measured by the criteria raised in points 10, 20 and 28. My arrest and my (admittedly fairly low level) of general participation in XR may have contributed in however small a way to XR’s journey of political self-education and its construction of political spectacle, and it certainly contributed to my own personal journey in learning how to overcome some of my resistances to participating in a republican politics of community. On such minimal margins do we construct our personal political choices.

32. Joshua raises the issue of middle-class buying power as political activism – something that I’ve long been torn over. I agree that there’s agency here, and that downshifting is a good idea. But while I have no problem with individuals focusing on one or the other form of activism, they’re not mutually exclusive. And ultimately, I think this succumbs to the same problem as Peter’s argument about Standing Rock – climate change isn’t made up of millions of individual consumption decisions, and folks can’t stop it by making millions of different ones. It’s made of millions of profit-seeking decisions that are written into the institutional structure of the societies we live in. That structure needs changing. And nobody knows how to do it, whatever their OP.

33. Bruce mentions Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier, which is collapsing, while the Home Secretary ponders new curbs on ‘eco-fanatics’. We haven’t yet got to the stage identified by Joe of environmental activists being quietly disappeared into the carceral system, or worse. But that could be where the discourse is drifting – Section 14s being used to pre-emptively stop protest, increasingly repressive policing, lengthy prison sentences mooted for XR protestors, the idea floated that this group of concerned climate scientists, doctors, teachers, farmers, grandparents and young people worried for their future is a ‘criminal organization’. You could be forgiven for thinking that, far from being coopted by the state, XR’s activities might actually be troubling it! Meanwhile many right-wing voices bay for more state violence to be used against XR protestors. But rather than address this fateful drift of ecological breakdown and political repression, there are those on the left who prefer to exhume the corpse of 19th century political theory in order to find XR wanting for its inauthenticity. As I see it, there’s fanaticism from all corners, but less from XR than from most – including from left-wing critics too wrapped up in nostalgic narratives of redemption through class violence.

Beyond authenticity: the politics of agrarian localism, Part 1

In this post and the next one I continue exploring the issue of protest, violence, class and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement I raised in the last one. I engage with some of the responses to the previous post, including one from Peter Gelderloos on Twitter, but rather than being just another iteration of that post and its responses, I’m thinking of these present two posts more as a kind of position statement on the politics underlying my forthcoming book, A Small Farm Future, and its arguments for renewable agrarianism, using the debate about XR as my foil. And also more generally on the kinds of left-wing politics that I espouse, and the kinds I don’t. I’ve found the debate quite stimulating in clarifying all this, so my thanks to everyone who’s participated for that.

I’ve written the posts in the form of thirty-three numbered ‘theses’ or assertions, sixteen in this post and seventeen in the next one (to be published in a couple of days) which encapsulate my thinking. I’ve tried to keep to the main themes I want to explore, which means with apologies I don’t respond to many interesting points and criticisms that people raised regarding my previous post. I don’t consider myself to be any great shakes as a social or political theorist (though see Point 9 below), and I’ve somewhat lost interest in it in recent years, but in these posts I try to work out a position with respect to some of it – apologies for the abstractions involved.

Peter Gelderloos suggested that I have misattributed views to him, so let me state upfront that in what follows I will try to distinguish as carefully as I can between what I think individual people in this debate have said and what I think is implicit in what they have said. Where I criticize or characterize positions without mentioning anyone by name, let me be clear that I am attributing these views to general positions and not to any specific person.

I’m taking the liberty of using first names for people who’ve engaged with me directly.

And so to the theses:

1. Human collectivities are divided by innumerable and cross-cutting social identifications such as gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, caste, racialized, ethnic and religious identifications, age, education, bodily capacities, social and emotional tendencies and so on. Some of these are more consequential for people’s experience of the world – the opportunities they have, the threats and dangers they face – than others, but all of them are consequential. Socioeconomic class is highly consequential.

2. Membership within some of these sub-categories of identification confers advantages and privileges and tends to normalize itself as being somehow the correct, normal or automatic basis of life – for example, the widespread normalization of maleness over femaleness. I will call the experience of being in one of these socially powerful sub-categories ‘ontological privilege’ (OP) because it’s about the advantages of certain kinds of social being.

3. There is an ontological counter-privilege (OCP) to not being in one of these powerful sub-categories. Women, for example, typically have less social power or privilege than men but – precisely for this reason – are in a more privileged position to see the workings of gendered power in ways that are often invisible to men. For this reason, OCP is more generative of political actions aiming to challenge OP. This is a major reason why, for example, feminism has mainly been driven by women. This is not to suggest that feminism cannot or should not be supported or in some ways advanced by men.

4. A notion has arisen within left-wing politics that there is such a thing as what I will call absolute ontological counter-privilege (AOCP). The idea here is that people with certain kinds of OCP are able to perceive a deeper, more general and more absolute truth about the nature of the (social) world than those without it, and the political activism that this puts them in a privileged position to take enables them – once the fires have died down – to bring about an intrinsically better, less divided, freer, fairer, more advanced or less ideologically deluded society in general than what preceded it. The main intellectual history of this notion comes via Hegel through Karl Marx and a large dose of 19th century scientism (‘SCIENCE’ rather than ‘science’, as I formulated it here). It coalesced into the view that the (industrial) working-class will bring about a (scientifically) improved communist society.

5. The notion of AOCP has been an utter disaster. It’s been particularly disastrous for the people tortured and murdered by authoritarian communist regimes for their lack of it and/or for their ‘incorrect’ thought. But I think it’s been disastrous more widely and generally for left-wing politics. Not many people on the left today still subscribe to it in its crudest form that the industrial proletariat will create a communist utopia, but it still weighs like a nightmare on the living traditions of left-wing politics in an ongoing sense that some kinds of political actors and actions are more authentic than others, and some kinds of actors and actions are inherently more ‘progressive’. AOCP aside, there are many other aspects of Marxism, left-wing politics and the politics of OP/COP that are full of insight about contemporary predicaments and political possibilities for addressing them.

6. There is a parallel intellectual history of mainstream, capitalist, ‘neoclassical/ neoliberal’ economic thought which, like Marxism, also has its roots in pseudo-scientific 19th century notions of progress. And it has also been an utter disaster. But I’m not going to say anything else about it here because I can see little within its traditions that generates a politics equal to present times.

7. Regarding the XR movement, it is a necessary and constructive thing for people with OP who are active within it to be continually reminded of this privilege and to try to learn from OCP critiques of OP. One clue to whether these critiques are well motivated is when they are directed to the specific actions or inactions of people within the movement. Saying that the movement is ‘white’ or ‘middle-class’ is not a specific critique.

8. There are a lot of left-wing critics of XR, and a lot of right-wing ones too. The criticism is ferocious, relentless and often non-specific. Some of it seems fair enough to me. Much of it doesn’t, and frankly I think a lot of the left-wing critics protest too much. I think XR challenges their residual commitment to AOCP manifested in a notion that XR is not pursuing ‘authentic’ politics, of which they are self-appointed guardians.

9. It’s a minor point perhaps, but I think this residual commitment to AOCP might be present where both Peter and Ruben raise the point that either me in particular or middle-class XR activists in general need to do the reading to be legitimate protagonists. This kind of admonition is not widely levelled on the left towards BIPOC or working-class political protagonists. Well, it’s always good to do more reading. But it’s interesting to watch the numerous ways that people warrant their greater authority to speak truth in interactions with others. A commitment to AOCP can provide rich resources for this. I think there’s possibly an implicit assumption here that black and working-class people are more authentic or sui generis political actors. Whereas white and middle-class people need to do the reading.

10. Ruben writes that “white people would be wise to recognize our lack of epistemic privilege concerning protest”. I think there’s some truth in that. But the best way of gaining epistemic privilege concerning protest is by protesting. That is what (white) people within XR are doing. They are making mistakes. They are learning. They are engaged.

11. There is a constellation of ideas within left-wing traditions (of which AOCP is one) that greatly romanticizes working-class violence as an agent of positive social change. It is true that violent working-class actions sometimes prompt significant social change. But usually they don’t. The same truths hold in the case of non-violent actions. But there seems to be a view among some on the left that violence is in itself a route to political redemption. This is mistaken.

12. Violence against property or people can be a political tactic, with weighty political and moral implications. Such tactics are not intrinsically associated with any particular social group. The social groups that have achieved the greatest political successes through violence are the ones with the most OP – male, ‘high’ caste or class, white. But with OP comes greater opportunity to use political violence successfully.

13. Nonviolent political activism is another political tactic. It can easily be coopted by the existing power structure and rendered harmless and invisible within what Ruben calls ‘the protest space’. Nonviolent civil disobedience is a way of trying to overcome this cooption. So is violent political activism. Neither form necessarily avoids cooption, and one of them is not better than the other in every circumstance unless you subscribe to the romantic notion that political violence is intrinsically redeeming.

14. Ruben writes “when XR rolls in proclaiming non-violence to be the answer…yes, that is mighty white of them.” But I don’t think XR activists generally proclaim that nonviolence is ‘the’ answer. I think they have signed up to the view that nonviolent civil disobedience is the best way to build a mass movement of climate change activism in present circumstances in contemporary Britain. I agree with that view, whereas in different circumstances I might not. I don’t think it is ‘mighty white’. I’d also note the implicit appeal to black authenticity in the term “rolls in”.

15. As I see it, there’s a hugely problematic homology lurking behind this whole white, nonviolent cooption idea. This is what it looks like:

  • White – middle-class – nonviolent – confirms existing order – politically negative
  • Black – working-class – violent – overturns existing order – politically positive

I think this is disastrous. Do I need to spell out why? Consider the various racist and right-wing stereotypes it implicitly mirrors. All you need to do is swap over ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ between lines (1) and (2) and you pretty much have Donald Trump’s re-election strategy. There can be cooption of working-class violence by the existing political order as well as middle-class nonviolence. But this homology is implicit in a lot of left-wing thought, perhaps because the residual commitment to AOCP makes it seem transformational rather than simply dogmatic.

I felt that this homology was implicit in Peter’s ROAR essay, but in his Twitter comment he seems to be saying that, yes, white and middle-class people can engage in nonviolent action that results in positive political transformation (perhaps there is some vagueness around my phrasing of ‘positive agency’ that muddies the water here). If that’s so, the inferences I was drawing about his essay were wrong. The tone and content of some of it then seems rather odd to me, but that’s another issue. Whatever his own views, I think the homology I sketched above invests a good deal of left-wing criticism of middle-class political activism, including XR. And it’s deeply problematic.

16. All of this suggests to me that we may be in for some strange political realignments down the line, somewhat akin to the journey of Britain’s Revolutionary Communist Party to far-right nativism. On the one hand, left-wingers who are still clinging to notions of AOCP might cleave towards right-wing populists in their antipathy to the inauthentic middle class, ‘the liberal elite’, ‘cosmopolitans’ and other people who are ‘not real’. On the other hand, we will hopefully also see left populist alliances between middle-class and working-class people, white and black people, committed to human freedom and social and environmental justice along the lines nicely sketched by Josh in this comment. Originally, I planned to elaborate on this trajectory in this follow-up post and perhaps I will at some point, but for now I think I’ll pretty much leave it at that. Suffice to say that I want to dissociate myself from the first tendency and associate myself with the second. Perhaps I’d just add that theories articulating an intrinsic working-class violence as the engine for radical left politics need to account very carefully for it also as the engine of radical right politics.