I’ve just returned from a short but fascinating meeting in Nicaragua on small-scale farming, which I plan to write about soon. But first I want to finish my history of the world. Apologies if the latter has dragged on too much, but we’re in the home straight now, and we’ll be moving on to other stuff soon. As ever a fully referenced version of this essay is here.


By the end of World War II, of the four key modern political doctrines I identified above it was liberal-democratic capitalism and communism that were left standing. Agrarian populism had its moments in post-war decolonisation, while fascism has recurred here and there, usually in diluted forms after the image problem it acquired during World War II. But essentially the end of that war marked the start of the capitalist-communist Cold War death battle, with the USA taking over from Britain in the driving seat of global capitalism and enforcing a global and far from peaceful Pax Americana, which has gradually lost its proselytizing zeal in favour of narrower self-interest.

The capitalist west’s answer to the threat of communism – other than naked military power – was a Keynesian settlement between capital and labour, in which the working class was offered full (male – and then, increasingly, female) employment and rising prosperity in return for political docility. This was quite easily achieved in the thirty years after World War II – the ‘trente glorieuses’ – with prodigious economic growth keeping both the owners of capital and the owners of labour happy. There were a few dissonant voices – environmentalists arguing that the cost of economic growth was ecological damage and the drawdown of non-renewable resources, prophets foretelling the impossibility of endless compound growth, and malcontents bemoaning the absurdity and ennui of a hyper-materialist modernity, but they gained limited traction at best. In the face of such activism it’s often said nowadays that most people aren’t very political and only want a quiet life. That’s true, I’d argue, partly because the liberal-democratic capitalist polities have put a lot of work into ensuring that most people aren’t very political, in particular by systematically dismantling most forms of collective political organisation and ridiculing the very idea of them. “Our place in history is as clock watchers, old timers, window shoppers”, as Billy Bragg nicely put it. Still, whatever the reasons, the ideal of the quiet suburban life in the west is indeed a reality that more activist political forms must confront.

It’s been getting harder to live a quiet life of late, though. The cracks started appearing in the capitalist façade in the 1970s when the stalling of economic growth re-sharpened the contest between capital and labour. Since then, governments in the democratic capitalist west have tried to manage the contradiction through two strategies whose basic outlines, if not their precise details, would have been recognisable to any Axial Age ruler: (1) buy off both the workers and the capitalists by stealing from the future in the form of inflationary monetary policy or building up private and public debt; (2) side with capital by disciplining and casualising labour, breaking unions, offshoring jobs or inshoring low-waged migrant workers, allowing unemployment to rise and curtailing public expenditure on social welfare.

The first strategy has a time limit on it. You can’t live beyond your means indefinitely by mortgaging your future. This was signalled by the 2008 crash, though governments in the ‘developed’ world have struggled to adopt policies likely to prevent a repeat of the experience down the road due to their excessive dependence on the finance industry that caused it. The belt-tightening response of ‘austerity’ policies pursued by some governments – the UK included – punished the poor for the excesses of the rich and brought few benefits to anyone but a wealthy few. Perhaps a bit of Keynesian demand stimulus would have been a better bet, but it would still be unequal to the task of restoring prosperity to a chronically stagnant and indebted economy.

The second strategy nowadays goes by the name of neoliberalism, and is not much different from the logic of the classic capitalist economy as formulated by the likes of Adam Smith, except for Smith and the early economic thinkers the point of capitalism was to augment a country’s prosperity – it was, precisely, about ‘the wealth of nations’ – whereas in the contemporary neoliberal phase, capital assumes an increasingly non-territorial logic which often has the opposite effect of diminishing national prosperities. Smith famously coined the notion of the ‘invisible hand’ which engineered common good out of private selfishness, while his successor to the crown among the classical political economists, David Ricardo, developed the concept of ‘comparative advantage’ to show how national prosperity was augmented when a country focuses on its most remunerative industries (though only when capital flows are restricted and can’t travel the world in search of absolute advantage as they do today, a point that often seems to be forgotten in contemporary encomiums to economic specialisation).

Neoliberalism is effectively the death knell for Smith’s invisible hand and Ricardo’s comparative advantage. Inequality is on the rise in the west, and although this has been offset by the rise of a middle class in a few populous Asian countries the general picture remains one of extreme inequality in most of the world (44% of the rise in real per capita income since 1988 has gone to the top 5% of earners), stagnant growth, irredeemable debt and chronic joblessness. The mechanical automation that deprived blue collar workers of gainful work through the 20th century has been augmented by an electronic automation that’s now likewise depriving white collar workers. Yet ‘work’ in the form of wage labour is still the only realistic route to economic wellbeing available to most people in the capitalist west. The new phenomenon of ‘jobless recoveries’ points, however, to who is actually making the money – not workers, but the owners of capital (for example, in some years after 2008, the entire increase in the US economy went to the highest 0.01% of earners). Increasingly, businesses in the west have financialised and virtualised their operations in accordance with the cycle of decline mentioned earlier, using their money to make more money through a deregulated and ever-proliferating thicket of bewildering financial gerrymandering. Sovereign states no longer have any real purchase on these processes of capital accumulation, but they need to stake a claim to their piece of the resulting pie in order to keep their electorates in the manner to which they’re accustomed.  ‘Government’ has become ‘governance’; ‘democracy’ has become ‘technocracy’. This has led to a waning of political legitimacy for liberal-democratic governments in the eyes of their electorates, as the penetration of private market ideology ever further into the structures of everyday life ceases to feel like the liberating ‘development’ or ‘progress’ of an earlier capitalism and becomes more manifestly dysfunctional and predatory. Neoliberalism has become another ‘prison of nations’, caging the citizenries of nation-states. Hence, no doubt, the nationalist and anti-establishment turn in various recent elections in the west.

But at least in the west it’s still a gilded cage. In many of the countries of the ‘periphery’ that emerged from de facto or de jure colonialism in the course of the 19th and 20thcenturies, political freedom has not resulted in economic self-determination. Political freedom in itself has been hard enough to negotiate in postcolonial countries inheriting multi-ethnic populaces with historically arbitrary boundaries, weak economies geared to the extractive designs of the old colonial core, and weak, corruption-prone political institutions. The neoliberal turn from the 1970s compounded these problems economically through institutions such as the World Bank, the WTO, the IMF, the EU and – while I’m with the acronyms – the USA, which imposed more ‘imperialism of free trade’, tariff barriers, debt, and structural adjustment programmes based on spurious neoclassical models that gutted the social provision of healthcare, education and other human services and removed agricultural price supports. On the upside, the stain of rank hunger, malnutrition and extreme poverty has been slightly ameliorated in recent years through multilateral global commitments, and arguably (only arguably) through agrarian technology in the form of the Green Revolution. But lowering the proportion of people earning a dollar or two a day doesn’t set the bar very high – inequality in general seems as intractable as ever.

Indeed, as I remarked earlier, poverty or ‘underdevelopment’ isn’t something separate from global capitalism in ‘developing’ countries hitherto excluded from the charmed circle of capitalist development, but is integral to the centre-periphery structuring of the global capitalist economy. One of the results of this is that, from a periphery country perspective, neoliberalism in the core looks a better bet than neoliberalism in the periphery. Likewise, cheap undocumented labour from the periphery often suits the designs of capital-owners in the core as a means of disciplining labour. Hence the pressure of global labour migration from periphery to core. At the same time, due to Malthusian fears for the future and the vagaries of global private markets, some of the world’s wealthier countries are reverting to the neo-colonial method of the land grab and directly-controlled plantation agriculture – sometimes to the benefit of the landless and marginalised in the target country, but usually to the detriment of those with a stronger foothold in the local economy.

Still, the issue of economic growth from a periphery country perspective doubtless raises tricky issues for environmentalists and ‘post-capitalists’. In the words of global poverty expert Branko Milanovic, economic growth is:

“the most powerful tool for reducing global poverty and inequality….One can hardly over-estimate its importance in poorer countries as a means of making the lives of ordinary people better. The disparagement of growth that surfaces from time to time comes mostly from rich people in rich countries who believe they can dispense with more economic growth. But these people are either deluding themselves or are hypocritical”.

It is, for sure, no fun at all being a poor person living in a growth-oriented economy that isn’t growing. But objections of the sort Milanovic raises were brusquely, and to my mind quite effectively, dismissed long ago as “crocodile tears from latter-day Marie Antoinettes” by steady-state economics pioneer, Herman Daly: “We are addicted to growth because we are addicted to large inequalities in income and wealth. What about the poor? Let them eat growth! Better yet, let them feed on the hope of eating growth in the future!….what grows is the reinvested surplus, and the benefits of growth go to the owners of the surplus who are not poor”. It is, in any case, impossible for a growth-oriented economy to grow forever. This is partly because of the destructive effects on the wider planetary ecology which, despite all the talk of ‘decoupling’ growth from resource drawdown, remain stubbornly correlated with economic growth. It’s also because economic growth is not continuously sustainable according to its own economic logic.

All this surely suggests there’s an urgent need to break new ground and start figuring out not only how economies might ‘take-off’ but also how they might ‘land’ in the sense of delivering acceptable human health and wellbeing without seeking to grow their resource take endlessly. There’s a long tradition of heterodox economic thinking that tries to think through exactly this point. I plan to write more about it elsewhere, but in brief I’d say it’s hard to see how this could work without people in the ‘developed’ economies living lives that are considerably less resource intensive. Of the four modern political doctrines I identified earlier, agrarian populism is the only one that seems to me capable of addressing this reality attractively (fascism or feudalism would be less attractive alternatives). But at present this is all rather academic, since nobody with significant power in the world is challenging the growth model. As Wolfgang Streeck drily notes,

“what matters for global oligarchic wealth defence…is control over American politics to ensure, for example, that the American Congress will never agree to a global wealth tax as proposed, among others, by Thomas Piketty. As long as this is certain, it does not really matter who governs with what ambitions in France or Germany”

Streeck doesn’t say much about the shifting momentum of the global economy towards Asia, but it seems unlikely that Piketty’s proposals will play any better in Beijing.

Nearly home now – just a few more pieces in this post-neoliberal jigsaw. The modern world has seen various religious fundamentalisms – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist to name a few. These are often seen as some kind of throwback to the premodern past, but are better viewed as modern phenomena – typically an ‘invention of tradition’ by people excluded from the major circuits of wealth and influence in modern polities who seek revitalisation by a ‘traditionalist’ critique of the modern and a validation of their role. Another developing phenomenon under the pressure of contemporary geopolitics and the neoliberal economic order is the spread of ‘failed’ or ‘warlord’ states – either ones like Somalia or Libya that fail more-or-less endogenously, or ones like Iraq and Afghanistan where the intervention of global and/or regional powers does the failing on their behalf. Likewise, there can be ‘failed regions’ within states, where organised crime and banditry proliferates. All such areas can become potent zones for the export of violence against the wider global system – criminal, terrorist or fundamentalist – potentially with disproportionately destabilising effects. The desert nomads of the Axial Age who railed against the corruption of the great cities of their day might have been at home there.

At the same time, an increasingly large number of people can now count themselves among those left out of the major circuits of global wealth and influence, but religious reaction remains something of a minority taste in the contemporary world. Instead, in the face of the fiscalised and technocratic turn of democratic polities, populist articulations of the interests of the ‘little people’ against elite actors have a growing pull. Hence the trajectory of Russia from communism to oligarchic turbo-capitalism and thence to populist nationalism under the aegis of an ex-communist strongman reining in the oligarchs and the liberal public sphere along with them. Various other countries, including perhaps the UK and the USA, seem to be travelling similar roads, or are poised to. Among the many problems with these populisms is the fact that despite their rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ from global institutions and their spurious, undeliverable promises to spend more on the National Health Service (UK) or revive the coal and steel industries (USA), they offer no more solutions to stagnant growth, inequality, debt and the changing global distribution of economic power than the ‘elite’ liberal capitalism they contest, and have neither the capacity nor the stomach to contest the global neoliberal economy in the face of the further impoverishment of their electorates. With wealth in these two countries (among many others) concentrating into ever fewer hands, it’s maybe not so difficult to see why their electorates went for the populist options of EU exit and a Donald Trump presidency, but it’s harder to see what solutions these choices will deliver.

Many voices across the political spectrum – left, right, green – have united to celebrate this apparent death knell for liberalism, including such august voices on the left as the New Left Review, green gurus like John Michael Greer and, on the right, well take your pick. I think it’s correct to argue that there are different kinds of populism, and attempts to vilify them all as a common threat to the liberal democracy that ‘we’ hold dear are both futile and ill-conceivedOn the other hand, though persuasive in many respects, the John Judis position endorsed by New Left Review as a “level-headed antidote to the bien-pensant Atlantic hysteria of the hour” with its “fashionable fear of fascism” seems complacent to me, as does the uncritical endorsement of populisms among many left/green thinkers apparently on the grounds that at least Donald Trump isn’t Hilary Clinton, and at least Theresa May isn’t Jean-Claude Juncker. Even NLR’s own reviewer of Judis’s book says that it’s “difficult to share his nonchalance about our stable political future”. Fascism, nativism or something like them is one very obvious future trajectory for the populism of the moment to take – as the curve of politics in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Turkey and India may already suggest. If that seems less likely in the US or Western Europe, it’s surely because of the strength of the liberal public sphere that it’s become so fashionable to deride. In future posts I plan to make a cautious pitch for a certain kind of agrarian populism, one that tries to retain elements of the liberal public sphere that’s so derided by people like Donald Trump and John Michael Greer. That, I think, still makes me a ‘populist’, but not one supportive of any kind of populism. Let me whisper it – there are some things that may be even worse than Hilary Clinton.

A possibly anomalous case in all this is China, probably the country most likely to step into the shoes being vacated by the USA as the leader of global capitalism in the leapfrog race that started back in medieval Europe with the Italian city states. There are those who argue that despite Deng Xiaoping getting the credit for modernising China in the aftermath of Mao’s excesses, the foundations for contemporary China’s capitalist success were laid by Mao with his rural, agrarian focus, which allowed later rulers to build capitalist industry out of small-scale labour-intensive rural industry from the ground up without an urban middle-class to contest for political and economic power.

Hsiao-Hung Pai is having none of that: “The Chinese ruling class is not short of supporters in the West. Certain Orientalist apologists in the Western media – for instance, British journalist Martin Jacques – have embraced the party rhetoric of China developing ‘on its own terms, with its own rules’”. This, she says, is ‘blatantly untrue’, and her work documents the way that China’s recent economic miracle has been built to a considerable degree on the tried-and-tested method of squeezing a surplus out of the peasantry, who are bureaucratically prevented by the household registration system from enjoying the fruits of their own exploited labour. When Ecomodernist Manifesto co-author Mike Shellenberger multiply-tweeted his disdain for my pro-peasant critique of his magnum opus, he wrote “efforts to keep people in villages oppressive”. So I find it quite ironic that this, precisely, has been the strategy of the world’s fastest-growing capitalist power. The question for contemporary agrarian populists such as me is whether we can ‘keep people in villages’ without compelling them to stay there. As I’ll argue in a later post, I think the only way we can keep people in the village is by not compelling them to be there, but that in itself doesn’t take us far in answering the question.

Here though, I think China does present some worthy historical lessons. Pai is probably right that we shouldn’t overdo the ‘Asian path to capitalism’ shtick, but what interests me more is the Asian pre-capitalist path – particularly in the context of Smith’s critique of Europe’s ‘unnatural development’. Looked at from the perspective of the emergence of capitalism and colonialism in the early modern world, maybe it makes sense to talk about the ‘involution’ or ‘equilibrium traps’ that ‘blocked’ parallel developments in Asia. But looked at from the perspective of the godawful mess created by capitalist and colonial ‘development’, it seems to me that a touch of agricultural involution here and a dash of high level equilibrium trap there would be no bad thing at all. For me, the question is how to create a ‘world system’ involving tolerably prosperous and stable agrarian livelihoods, without too much self-overcoming, too much reaching beyond itself for counter-productive ‘development’.

So as I see it humanity now faces a choice. We can continue extolling the virtues of ‘development’, pin our hopes on a rapid decarbonisation of the energy system while retaining something like present levels of energy usage, and imagine that a further iteration of the capitalist economy will somehow overcome the grinding poverty that afflicts so many people in the world today. Or we could take the view that the forms of development offered by this ‘modernism’ have failed. They haven’t increased the efficiency of agriculture or industry, they’ve merely increased the speed with which non-renewable resources are drawn down. They haven’t abolished poverty, but in fact are predicated on its constant re-invention. And, for all my appreciation of Berman’s thinking on the excitement of modernity, I don’t think they’ve provided satisfactory accounts of what modern life is all about. They’ve merely provided endless distractions and projections of a better future built from the never-quite-satisfactory present, which do little more than celebrate ‘progress’ for progress’s sake – as in Leigh Phillips’ panegyrics for a dismal-sounding future of ‘growth, progress, industry and stuff’. There are other thinkers who provide much more sophisticated defences of the amplifying material basis of contemporary capitalism than Phillips, but this scarcely negates the fact that there are better ways of construing social life than a gigantic potlatch.


Teaser photo credit: Watercolor by James G. Swan depicting the Klallam people of chief Chetzemoka at Port Townsend, with one of Chetzemoka’s wives distributing potlatch