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Peasantization as Modernization – an Alternative Ecomodernism

I’ve spent – wasted, probably – a fair amount of time on this blog critiquing various techno-fixer scenarios for achieving future sustainability and social justice, most notably that of the self-styled ‘ecomodernists’1. I’m not going to rehash that here, but in this post and the next I’m going to come at the underlying issues from a different angle by reflecting on the question of modernism, which suggested itself to me through a rereading of the late Marshall Berman’s brilliant book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. At issue is the question of whether there’s a way out of the airless dualism in contemporary thought between modern/high tech/progressive/optimistic/positive/rational/urban vs primitive/low tech/reactionary/pessimistic/negative/romantic/rural that so disfigures debates about farming and social futures. Sorry to harp on about it, but I think it’s important. I’ll get back to some more on-farm content after these two posts.

I first read Berman’s book thirty-odd years ago – required reading as it was then for every trendy young cultural theorist – and was reminded of it recently while reading Austerity Ecology by Leigh Phillips, who invoked it in support of his enthusiasm for heroic, large-scale technological modernization. I couldn’t remember much about the book, except a nagging feeling that Berman’s thinking on modernization was a lot more nuanced and ambivalent than Phillips’. Indeed, even the passage from Berman that Phillips cites is quite ambivalent1. And so it proved on a rereading. In fact, it made me wonder if Phillips had really read the book – entertainingly, in view of the sub-theme that’s emerged in my engagements with him over exactly who’s read what, as elaborated by Ruben, my Canadian mole. I suppose I should be grateful to Mr Phillips for drawing me back to Berman – perhaps the price of reading the latter’s exceptionally good book was having to plough my way through the former’s exceptionally, er, not so good one…For reasons I’ll come to in my next post, I should probably try not to annoy Mr Phillips any more than I have to.

Anyway, the thesis I want to develop with Berman’s help is that a future neo-peasant society – relatively labour-intensive, relatively low-tech – of the kind I’ve long advocated involves a modernist vision, notwithstanding the common tendency to dismiss such thinking as backward, romantic or primitivist. Indeed, I think it’s a more supple and sophisticated form of modernism than the modernism of the ecomodernists – but that’s something I’ll pursue further in my next post. Perhaps I erred in my engagements with the ecomodernists by accepting their framing of the debate, allowing them to appropriate the idea of modernism for themselves. If what they’re describing is modernism, my thinking ran, then I guess I’m not a modernist. But here’s Berman’s opening definition:

“To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organizations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and to make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts. We might even say that to be fully modern is to be anti-modern: from Marx and Dostoevsky’s time to our own, it has been impossible to grasp and embrace the modern world’s potentialities without loathing and fighting against some of its most palpable realities.” (pp.13-14)

So that’s modernism, huh? Show me where to sign!

Berman suggests that the great thinkers of the 19th century who first wrestled with the problem of modernization were more subtle and alive to its ambiguities than we are today, when we tend to either embrace it blindly or condemn it out of hand, supplanting open visions of modern life and the possibility that it can be changed to suit contemporary needs and problems with closed and monolithic conceptions of what modernity entails. Quite so. In a long and brilliant chapter that I couldn’t possibly hope to summarize, encompassing the history of St Petersburg, Dostoevsky’s musings on class conflict in the modern city and the 19th century significance of London’s Crystal Palace, Berman draws a distinction between modernism as an adventure and modernism as a routine – more specifically, the social adventure of challenging fixed traditions and cultural conventions on the one hand, and, on the other, the routine of becoming subordinated by those immense and crushing bureaucracies.

In a moment, I’ll try to sketch the implications of this for my own concerns to articulate a small farm or neo-peasant future, but to further that aim I first want to look at another brilliantly-realised part of Berman’s book – his analysis of Goethe’s Faust. Again, I can’t do it – the poem-drama or Berman’s interpretation of it – any justice here, but I want to highlight three of Berman’s points that are relevant to my purposes. First is the notion, personified in the figure of Faust and his pact with Mephistopheles, that modernity is about endless development – development of the self and of personal agency and capacities, and development of society and its capacities. Although the engine of this developmental process in modern capitalist societies is money, capital accumulation, this isn’t the fundamental purpose. Worldly wealth is a recurrent fantasy in many societies, not limited to capitalist ones – to be rich, happy, and influential – but in capitalist societies that alone is not enough. Change and development become goals in themselves – constant change, constant reinvention, constant growth, a constant tearing down of the old and a ringing in of the new.

That process causes suffering. In the poem, Faust’s tragic lover Gretchen comes to grief because ultimately she can’t or won’t transcend the traditional, religious, small-town world from which she comes, a world that takes revenge on her for her temerity in even trying. As Berman puts it, the Gretchen tragedy

“should etch in our minds forever the cruelty and brutality of so many of the forms of life that modernization has wiped out. So long as we remember Gretchen’s fate, we will be immune to nostalgic yearning for the worlds we have lost” (p.60)

Amen to that. But the problem is, our crude 21st century versions of modernism want to subsume every possible critique of modernity into such nostalgic yearning, as if being Gretchen is the only possible alternative to being Faust. I’ve been accused of ‘romanticising’ the past often enough by people I’ve tended to assume haven’t bothered to read what I’ve actually written, but perhaps it’s more that the Faust-Gretchen duality is so deeply ingrained in their thinking that they can only comprehend anti-Faust as pro-Gretchen (yep, I’m looking at you Graham Strouts). As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, for those happy souls who are content never to stray beyond the comforting confines of that duality, I don’t think there’s anything I can possibly say to enlighten them3. But for the more intellectually curious, it’s worth mentioning two other relevant individuals in Faust, Philemon and Baucis – a sweet old couple who live a simple, rustic life in a cottage surrounded by lindens in the land where Faust is conducting his giant engineering projects. In Berman’s words

“They are the first embodiments in literature of a category of people that is going to be very large in modern history: people who are in the way – in the way of history, of progress, of development; people who are classified, and disposed of, as obsolete” (p.67)

Or, in the words of Goethe’s Faust,

That aged couple should have yielded
I want their lindens in my grip
Since these few trees are denied me
Undo my worldwide ownership….
Hence is our soul upon the rack
To feel, amid plenty, what we lack

That rage at obstinately unmodernizable people or those who speak up for them always feels close to the surface in modernism – and I think the more so in contemporary modernism which lacks the sophistication of its antecedents and which now finds it harder to do as Faust did and quietly arrange to have Philemon and Baucis removed (though it still does a pretty good job). Hence we get all manner of trickery of the kind evident in The Ecomodernist Manifesto and similar works – that, actually, everybody wants modernization, apart from a few romantic intellectuals who are complacent in their own privilege; or that unmodern people engage in unsustainable practices that can’t be allowed to continue; or that although modernization may inflict some temporary hardships upon those accustomed to a different way of life it will ultimately prove to be in their best interests. In my opinion, these are little more than salves to the modernist consciousness seeking its worldwide ownership, but washing its hands of the human cost.

Berman writes that Faust “comes to feel it is terrifying to look back, to look the old world in the face” (p.69) and to me this exactly captures a rage in modernism that troubles me. If we’re relaxed and confident in ourselves, we feel no need to belittle others’ achievements and to exaggerate our own. Nor do we want to be anyone else, because we’re happy enough being ourselves, but we’re open to the possibility of learning new things from other people, including people who some might say are beneath our contempt – for our part, we feel no need to judge. That genre of ecomodernist writing that contemptuously asks which period in history the critics of modernisation wish to return us to misses the point that there is no such period – the point, rather, is that we can open-mindedly learn from other societies, including ones from the past, rather than assuming that they have nothing to teach us and are beneath our contempt. I’d like to think that this view could command widespread agreement as a matter of simple cultural maturity – our way is not the only way – quite apart from the more practical lessons we might learn from the low energy societies of the past as we face an uncertain and quite possibly lower energy future ourselves. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case. If there’s one thing in contemporary culture I’d like to help change it’s this complacent assumption that primitive/modern is the only necessary lens for observing history – a complacency redolent of modernity as routine, not modernity as adventure, that more open vision of modern life of which Berman spoke.

The widespread tendency nowadays to dismiss non-modern peoples past and present, to impute a misery to their lives that we claim to have transcended, may sometimes have a factual grounding but I think also speaks to an anxiety that for all our restlessness, our endless growth, our appetite for the new and our contempt for the old, we haven’t found what seek, and we are not at peace. Indeed, the whole point of that restless modern urge is that we never can be at peace. Leigh Phillips makes that point explicitly and sees it as a positive – never be satisfied, always demand more – without seeing the psychological cost that our emphasis on constant self-reinvention imposes, and the cost in blood that is paid for it by the Philemons and Baucises of this world (or, if he does acknowledge the latter cost, he imputes the problem to ‘capitalism’ and considers it soluble through socialism, without seeing how the problem moves more deeply within modernization processes which both capitalism and socialism manifest).

The final point to make about Faust, which emerges from the last, is that there is no still centre towards which modernity is reaching, no finally achieved perfection. Again, it’s possible to see a positive side to that, but also an uncomfortable truth that appears to be lost on the ecomodernists – namely, to quote Berman again, that “yesterday’s Fausts may find themselves today’s Philemon and Baucises” (p.79). That indeed is the whole axis of the Faust myth: “Once the developer has cleared all the obstacles away, he himself is in the way, and he must go” (p.70).

Let me now briefly try to pull this together in relation to my thesis that a small farm future is a modernist future. I endorse Berman’s definition of what it is to be modern, a definition that is political and not technological, emphasising a striving for improvement in an ambiguous world full of difficult choices, and in particular the choice of adventure over boring routine or established hierarchy. In some historical circumstances the appropriate modernist choice has been to step away from small-scale peasant farming, and from the boredom and hierarchy it entailed, and that’s probably still true today for some people – though for fewer, I’d submit, than is commonly supposed by many a latter day savant.

For numerous people now living in the so-called ‘advanced’ countries of Western Europe, North America and elsewhere, on the other hand, I’d suggest that the opposite is the case. It is more adventuresome and more ‘modern’ to see that the world is changing, that the trajectory of high-tech liberal capitalism is leading us not only into environmental problems but also to economic and political crises out of which we in the global north are unlikely to emerge unscathed, and that an appropriate modernist response is to embrace this changing order by reaffirming the importance of good land husbandry, a defence of localism and local communities, and an emphasis on the limits to consumption – more adventuresome and more modern at any rate than the bureaucratic modernism-as-routine now lived by so many of us toiling in our offices, working for huge corporate enterprises in jobs whose purpose we’ve forgotten if we ever knew it in the first place, before the fearsome commute home through gridlocked streets to our apartments, where we hope the lights will stay on and the goods will keep flowing once ‘they’ have worked out how to sate our cities’ endless appetite for energy. Of course, it’s not easy for many people to escape that life for reasons both practical and psychological. But nor was it easy for their great grandparents to escape the farm or the conservative forces then holding them in their grip. The modernist adventure is never easy.

No doubt there’s a fine line between my argument for peasantisation as modernisation and a nostalgic, conservative hankering after old hierarchies and old certainties – but nevertheless there is a line, and to me it’s a pretty clear one. Berman helps elucidate it in his analysis of how Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway destroyed the Bronx, where he grew up,

“So often the price of ongoing and expanding modernity is the destruction not merely of “traditional” and “pre-modern” institutions and environments but – and here is the real tragedy – of everything most vital and beautiful in the modern world itself….the so-called modern movement has inspired billions of dollars’ worth of “urban renewal” whose paradoxical result has been to destroy the only kind of environment in which modern values can be realized. The practical corollary of all this…is that in our city life, for the sake of the modern we must preserve the old and resist the new” (pp.295-318)

As in our city life, so in our country life. There was a time when the tractor over the horse, the bulk tanker over the milk churn, or whatever other examples you care to choose, seemed and probably were a liberation. But I don’t think it’s possible to be so complacent about the inflow of new agricultural technology and the outflow of agricultural labour any more. A peasant modernism isn’t against new technology, but it’s not necessarily for it either, and it may often default to older ways of doing things – more human labour, less power-hungry machinery – as a more modern response to our problems.

So if peasant modernism isn’t necessarily for new technology (the tendency to conflate modernisation with mere technological improvement is a mistake that Berman effectively criticises) then what is it for? Well, I guess every political ideology has some kind of future utopia in mind which usually looks…pretty boring. For the techno-fixers and ecomodernists it’s a workless society of urban, wealthy, plugged-in Eloi, drifting around in pursuit of their leisured interests. For a peasant modernist it’s a life lived close to the land and the rhythms of the natural world, a life of hard work sometimes sure enough, but also of human community and folk songs around the fire. In both cases, the adventure of struggling to realise the vision is maybe more appealing than the vision itself. But as I see it, the peasant modernist vision has more intrinsic appeal – there are endless, engrossing ways of improving small farms and the small communities of which they’re a part, whereas post-work utopias evince the same problem that Hannah Arendt detected in communist utopias – “the futility of a life which does not fix or realise itself in any permanent subject that endures after its labor is past” (p.128).

Incidentally, Gene Logsdon has written a nice essay recently which makes similar points to the ones I’m making here, but without the sociological theorising. Perhaps I could learn something there. Logsdon writes,

“One of the prejudices about artisanal, small-scale food farmers is that they are “going back” to the land. The truth is, they are going forward to the land. For several generations now the older people in our preponderantly urban population have handed down to their children an image of farming based on experiences that date back to the early 1900s. The hard life they described…got imbedded in the subconscious minds of urbanites even though they know it isn’t true anymore.”

Well said – although I think there are different resonances between North America, Western Europe, and so-called ‘developing’ countries today around this point. Still, perhaps an implication of Logsdon’s argument is that ecomodernism is a form of retro-modernism, attempting to solve old-fangled problems (the hardscrabble life of the small farmer) by old-fangled methods (labour-shedding, energy-intensive technological development). Of course, the life of the contemporary small farmer isn’t easy. But my point is that it’s modern – and usually more so than that of their salaried urban counterparts.

Still, I acknowledge various difficulties in my peasant modernist vision. One is how to realise or generalise it. Earlier strands of modernist thought have offered pat answers to achieving their own utopias – Marx’s notion (also espoused by Phillips) that there is an inherent tendency to self-overcoming within capitalism located within the working class, or the strange notion so intricately elaborated by capitalist (‘neoclassical’) economists that free markets deliver what everybody wants, or the even stranger notion elaborated by the ecomodernists that heaven is to be found in a world of urban residence, nuclear power and GM crops. None of these neat resolutions strike me as convincing – but that leaves the problem of how to take hold of the machinery of modernization and create a neo-peasant world out of it. Here I agree with Berman and other writers in the anti-folk politics or anti-small is beautiful tradition like Srnicek and Williams or, hell, maybe even Leigh Phillips, that local particularisms need some kind of meta-local political context to succeed – a context best delivered by agrarian populism in my opinion, though that’s hardly an answer in itself. The other major problem – which is not specific to neo-peasant modernism, but is shared by all modernist utopias – is how to retain the positive force of all that restless striving, self-development and adaptability to change that’s part of the modernist way, while transcending its destructiveness, its anti-humanism and its troublesome tendencies towards change for change’s sake. I confess that I don’t have any simple answers. I don’t think there are any simple answers. But I’ll do my best to grapple directly with these problems in some future posts.

References

  1. My main writings on this are a critique of the ecomodernist manifesto, along with a follow-up essay, a piece for Statistics Views on ecomodernist approaches to energy and poverty, an essay concerning ‘peasant socialism’ by way of a critique of Leigh Phillips’ Austerity Ecology, a piece about the climate deal in Paris, and my recent essay on Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future.
  1. “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are” Berman, M. (1982) All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience Of Modernity, London: Verso. Cited in Phillips, L. (2015) Austerity Ecology & The Collapse Porn Addicts, Winchester: Zero, p.255.

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