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As a student in the 1980s, I was educated by probably the last generation of academics who found it possible to identify wholeheartedly with Marxism. They were good people and clever thinkers, and I suppose I became a Marxist myself for a time under their influence. I never made a good revolutionary, but I believed in science, progress, rationality and, above all, equality. I was acutely conscious of how lucky I was to be a privileged citizen of a privileged country – privileges that in many ways were built on the backs of less fortunate people. So, if I thought much at all about the kind of society I wanted to see, I suppose it would have been one in which everyone could live a life like mine – an urban wage labourer working in the knowledge economy, shopping in the supermarket, and getting away for the odd weekend to the mountains to reconnect with the wilder side of life.
Decades later, I’m a mostly self-employed farmer working a small piece of land, growing a fair slice of my own food, with few opportunities to ‘get away’, but absorbed in the daily wildness of creating sustenance from the earth. I still believe in equality, and I still believe in science, progress and rationality, although in a more conflicted way than before. And when I now think about the kind of society I’d like to see – which I do more often than I used to – I imagine one in which a lot of people live a similar kind of life to my present one. I have, in short, become an advocate for peasantisation, localisation, agrarian populism, anti-globalisation and degrowth – a cluster of ideas that I think of as an economics of the home1.
For that reason, I’m a traitor to the leftist politics set out by Leigh Phillips in his recent book Austerity Ecology & The Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff2. Perhaps I’m what he’d term a “cuckoo’s egg in the nest of the left”. His sense of ‘the left’ is pretty impoverished – an orthodox Marxist, crypto-Bolshevism that I’m happy to steal nest space from. And in truth his book is very bad – crowded with contradictions, non-sequiturs, dodgy mathematics and cod philosophy, as various reviewers have pointed out3. I’ve already sounded off, perhaps a bit too hastily, about the failings of his thinking4, so perhaps the wise course now would be to maintain a dignified silence.
And yet my thoughts keep going back to the book, not because of what it is, but of what it might have been – a constructive left-wing critique of my newfound way of life and that of a growing number of other home economists. I see value in a socialist critique of home economics, but also value in a home economics critique of socialism. A good Marxist would call this approach ‘dialectical’. I’m not a good Marxist and neither is Leigh Phillips, but I hope this essay will produce a more interesting synthesis of the two politics that have made most sense to me at different times in my life than the howl of nostalgia for a long-outmoded politics of ‘progress’ at the heart of Phillips’ philippic. What I offer here is not a review of his book, but a meditation on some specific themes prompted by it.
Enlightenment and disillusion
An objection often levelled by progressives at home economists is their backward-looking preference for past times. Contemporary society is broken, the home economists proclaim, and we need to find inspiration from peoples of the past – ‘the past’ here encompassing anything from the 1970s before the onset of neoliberalism to the Palaeolithic before the onset of agriculture. I think there’s some validity to the criticism, though it’s often overblown – as if any attempt to learn from past peoples is foredoomed romanticism. But it’s striking how often the progressives themselves sneak a bit of past-peddling into their fantasias for the future.
Phillips, for example, vaunts the 18th century Enlightenment in which the new thinkers of western Europe kicked against the restrictive old order of God, church and aristocratic hierarchy in favour of science, progress and reason. Indeed it’s hard to overestimate the importance of the Enlightenment for modern thought. Historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein suggests that the Enlightenment ideas politically realised in the French Revolution instigated the now apparently ineluctable notion that humanity ‘progresses’ through history and that civilization steadily improves, ideas that would previously have been considered absurd5. This progress meme found its way via Hegel’s philosophy into Marx’s thought – where the industrial proletariat figured as the final, purest revolutionary class – and into socialist and ‘progressive’ politics of the modern age more generally.
I find much to admire in this Enlightenment tradition, but its coarser enthusiasts – and Phillips is certainly one – easily traduce it into exactly the kind of binary, pseudo-religious, ahistorical, darkness-versus-light narrative that its originators struggled to overcome. Hence, Phillips detects Enlightenment-thinking (which he equates with urbanism) and its dangerous Counter-Enlightenment antithesis in all sorts of places historically, such as the cities of the ancient world, of which he writes,
This recurring pattern of a wistful, sentimental appreciation of nature and lamentation of a lost Eden arises from a certain level of city-dwelling privilege forgetful of the tribulations of rural life and ever-present menace that is the wilderness. It takes a certain kind of forgetfulness to be able to romanticise the hard-knock life of the peasant. The peasant would trade places with the gentleman horticulturist – or, more latterly, the Stoke Newington subscriber to Modern Farmer magazine – any day (p.252)
He detects Counter-Enlightenment thought too in the murky associations between early environmentalism, fascism, nature mysticism, and nationalist championing of peasant authenticity. And he detects it in any contemporary position that questions what he terms “growth, progress, industry and stuff”.
This primitivist-vs-progressive trope is so airlessly entrenched that any attempt at an alternative narrative stands little chance of escaping the primitivist pigeonhole that its hardcore adherents stand ready to assign it. But not everyone is so trapped in the logic of modernism that they find the metaphors of ‘forwards’ and ‘backwards’ entirely adequate to describe the course of human history, so in that spirit I offer the following commentary.
(1) The tension over urbanism in the ancient world was not about city sophisticates hankering after the bucolic life. Ancient urbanism was built on the backs of the peasantry. Sometimes it drew them in, by command or by choice, but it could never fully deliver on its ennobling promises. The rural refuseniks were not for the most part downsizing wannabe peasants. They were peasants. And the idea that they’d prefer to trade places with urban sophisticates is mostly self-serving modernist propaganda, though I accept that urban elites through the ages have generally been pretty good at ensuring the people who fed them had well-founded reasons for envy. However, an attentive reading of the refusenik’s texts – The Book of Genesis is one starting point – reveals an agrarian voice that may sometimes be angry, envious or wistful, but is also sui generis and authentic to itself.
(2) The Enlightenment’s stock-in-trades of science, progress and reason are double-edged weapons, creating both marvels and monsters. Rationality invested Enlightenment-era ideas like universal human rights but also the meticulous organisation of labour exploitation and corporal punishment in the slave colonies. Are Spinoza and Condorcet the true voice of the Enlightenment, or might de Sade’s pitiless exploration of rationalised domination better capture the Enlightenment’s adventures in Europe’s colonies, as some writers have argued6? Enlightenment thought, like all thought, contains its own internal contradictions and goes on strange intellectual journeys quite beyond its originators’ imagination. The search for purity in isolating some kind of true spirit of the Enlightenment makes for poor intellectual history and troublingly totalitarian politics.
(3) We can seldom wholly escape from the grip of the ideas we oppose. The communism of Marx and Engels seemed the antithesis of capitalism, but it’s easy to see with the benefit of hindsight that key Marxist concepts – labour, progress, science, production, technology – were thoroughly invested with its ideology. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”, as Marx himself perceptively put it7.
(4) But when an idea takes hold, people can reshape the world in its image. Because Marxists thought that industrial wage labourers were the truly revolutionary class, when they gained power people who didn’t fit this preconceived historical scheme were ruthlessly suppressed. Peasantries in particular have borne the brunt of Marxism’s simplistic ideology of modernisation, despite the fact that no successful leftist revolution of modern times has occurred without mass peasant mobilisation.
(5) The connections between early environmentalism and far-right mysticism are plain enough, but the socialist thought of the same period scarcely emerges unscathed, with its eugenic fantasies of racial improvement (indeed, ‘progressive’ and ‘modernist’ thought of all kinds is generally vulnerable to totalising bio-social visions, perhaps for obvious reasons). It wasn’t until the full implications of this kind of thinking were practically demonstrated in Nazi Germany that both the left and the nascent green movement dropped the whole thing. Peasants, often idealised by nationalists and fascists, nonetheless rarely benefitted from their political programmes, to which they were generally less inclined to subscribe than their urban counterparts.
Phillips writes that “the declinist meme has been kicking around since the time of Napoleon” (p.246). So if Immanuel Wallerstein is right that the progressivist meme only really started with the French Revolution, then the span between Enlightenment and disillusion was short indeed. But you can hardly blame the Enlightenment-era revolutionary modernists for faltering when the actuality of the revolution became the iron fist of Napoleon’s imperial ambitions. To offer a grand Phillipsian generalisation, I’d be inclined to say that if there have indeed been many versions of civilization, ‘modernity’, Enlightenment, or reason through the ages, in the end they always disappoint. They offer grand universal narratives grounded in their self-conceived superiority over existing alternatives – more freedom, power, knowledge, wealth, growth, ‘stuff’ to all – which they can never fully honour because ideological purism of all kinds invariably succumbs to real world complexity, and because ideological universalism invariably hides a hierarchy of unequal reward.
People react to these failures of modernism in various ways. They turn on it in fury and back reactionary forms of religious purism, or traditional forms of rural life, or charismatic strongman politics, or the pursuit of personal pleasures, or criminal forms of self-aggrandisement, or a turn to mysticism, or plain despair. Or else perhaps they take the Phillips approach and stridently insist on the correctness of the original project, brushing aside all evidence of its failings with a millenarian confidence in its future perfectibility, a cargo cult mysticism of redemption through ‘stuff’ and a curt dismissal of the naysayers who doubt that there’s gold at the end of the rainbow.
I’d have thought that even a true believer like Phillips might make a few tactical concessions to those who’ve stopped following the rainbow, disillusioned by where the path has so far led, and try to incorporate their critiques into his thinking lest these shadows of the Enlightenment overwhelm his project. But no, here he is on page 189 bemoaning the poverty of ambition of energy development NGOs compared to what he calls the “continent-straddling ambition of the galacticos of the old left”, and approvingly citing Lenin’s slogan “Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country”. It’s not that I’m opposed to electrification, or that I deny there are tricky issues of scale to confront in energy development – though, as I’ve argued elsewhere, I find Phillips’ scaling of the energy issues currently facing the world unconvincing8. But it troubles me that anyone can now invoke the grandiose, pitiless and polluting developmental hubris of the old left or the new right without a trace of irony as a model for the future. What Phillips calls ‘poverty of ambition’ I see as a lesson well learned in grounding real development in the particularity of people’s lives, in their soils, in their homes, in specific aspirations for self-improvement rather than in the world-transforming mechanics of an abstract and a priori theory.
Still, the world does need some transforming. Social inequalities are profound, and so are looming environmental crises around climate, energy, soils, biodiversity and water pollution. For reasons that I’ve been detailing elsewhere9, the forms of human development that seem to me most promising for tackling these problems involve economic localisation with a substantial turn to a more peopled small-scale agriculture. And the political tradition that I find of most interest for grounding it is agrarian populism, the political expression of modern peasant consciousness. From the late 19th through the early 20th centuries in many parts of the world, peasant parties were major political players to a degree that has now been all but erased from modern political memory. One reason for that is the way socialism, particularly in its Marxist hues, crushed them wherever it came to power, relentlessly promoting the interests of urban wage labourers over peasants. Whether capitalist or communist, the ‘modernist project’ basically did all it could to eliminate the self-reliant small rural proprietor. It never quite succeeded, but it did a pretty good job. So the political problem for an agrarian populism of the present day is how to get ‘the people’ back into farming, because you can’t have an agrarian politics of the people when so few of the people are agrarian.
The problem, on the other hand, for a popular politics of liberal-capitalism is how to convince people that capitalism indeed is liberal rather than illiberal, and inherently egalitarian rather than inherently inegalitarian. And the problem for Marxism, at least of the traditional variety, is how to convince people that the industrial or even the post-industrial working class is somehow going to deliver humanity into an abundant and egalitarian socialism.
Class and stuff
Those are all difficult tasks, but to my mind the last one, which is the one that Phillips sets himself, is probably the hardest. He makes it even harder with the admission that in the ‘developed’ west “the working class as a self-aware class was broken utterly in the 80s and 90s” (p.153). But two paragraphs later he resurrects it, not as it actually is, but as the millenarian modernist mind would like it to be: “the working class is not just the liberator of itself, but of all mankind. It is the universal class.”
Elsewhere in the book it becomes clear how limited this universal class and its aspirations are. The working class doesn’t include peasants, who Phillips seems happy to condemn along with the early Marx as ‘rural idiots’ (p.286). Nor does it include the petit bourgeoisie, that small town firmament of farmers and shopkeepers dismissed by Phillips as “the conservative fever dream of the yeoman and the shopkeeper” (p.236). It possibly includes its New World counterparts, the leftist agrarian populists of North America and Australia, perhaps because they were “resolutely modernist, embracing the latest farming techniques” (p.123). But it certainly doesn’t include those class fractions we encountered earlier to which the contemporary back-to-the-lander apparently belongs, the “gentleman horticulturist” and the “Stoke Newington subscriber to Modern Farmer magazine” (p.252).
Phillips provides some clues about his conception of what the working class is rather than what it isn’t in a passage that begins by asking if “the pleasure derived from a…Sony PlayStation 4 [is] inferior to the pleasure the subscribers of Real Simple magazine derive from their $2000 coffee table made from recycled traffic signs” before seguing into a high octane soliloquy which starts with a reference to poor-hating snobbery, proceeds by excoriating various celebrity critiques of obesity and bad food choices among the working class, and terminates with a diatribe against the anti-consumers, that “army of tattooed-and-bearded, twelve-dollar-farmers’-market-marmalade-smearing, kale-bothering, latter-day Lady Bracknells…[who] just don’t like the sort of people who like McNuggets (pp.92-3).
So the liberatory working class construed by Phillips ends up looking almost indistinguishable from the shallow, censorious, materially-oriented, pleasure-seeking and status-obsessed bourgeoisie. Here is the real ‘poverty of ambition’… and a poverty of analysis too. The opportunity, for example, to provide a serious structural analysis encompassing the political economy of food that allocates poor people in poor countries too little of the right kind of food, and poor people in rich countries too much of the wrong kind10 is predictably squandered in favour of this inch-deep Oliver Twist socialism, because Phillips’ brand of vulgar Marxism with its incomplete critique of capitalism leaves him with nothing to reckon with but an empty set of class categories chasing after the capitalist gravy train.
And it’s remarkable how thin and empty of real human content such Marxist class categories can be. I’m thinking for example of my grandfather: part-Methodist, part-Anglican, ‘proletarian’ coalminer and ‘petit bourgeois’ shopkeeper, soldier for the British empire, reflex Labour-voter, ‘back-to-the-land’ horticulturist and trade union renegade after falling out with ‘Greasy Waistcoat’, his nickname for the reviled shop steward at his pit. You’d think his life would have been torn apart by the class contradictions implied in Phillips’ model, but of course it wasn’t. Sometimes, in particular historical situations, distinctive ‘classes-for-themselves’ emerge and contest for political power with other classes. But there is no abstract, universal, self-aware working class which is the privileged site for the final triumph of socialism. I can just about understand how Marx, writing in England in the mid-19th century, came to think that the industrial proletariat might play this role, though even there I think there was a bit too much Hegelian philosophy and not enough grounded politics in his analysis. Towards the end of his life, as revolutionary communism began to gain ground not in the capitalist countries of western Europe as he’d predicted but in the agrarian countries of the east, Marx – subtle and original thinker that he was – began cautiously recrafting his thinking on this point11. If he were back among the living today, I suspect he’d be horrified at the way that lesser thinkers such as Josef Stalin and Leigh Phillips have clung so grimly to his idea of proletarian primacy, with disastrous effect whenever they’ve attained political power.
Towards a new agrarian populism
However, lurking in the shadows of Phillips’ pages there exists the rudiments of a more promising analysis. One component of it is agrarian populism, shaped partly by its New World manifestations that he briefly mentions – those ‘resolutely modernist’ prairie socialists who briefly challenged for political power in the USA either side of 1900 – but also the leftist peasant parties of eastern Europe in the early 20th century, and the pro-peasant politics of decolonisation emerging in Africa, Asia and Latin America later in the century. Another component is those religious traditions which not only critique the pursuit of worldly wealth, but variously approve plain living, honest work, self-reliance, self-control and sufficiency.
Phillips approvingly mentions Catholic variants of these traditions such as liberation theology and revolutionary Jesuitism. There are also various Protestant manifestations such as Anabaptism and Methodism, and countless non-Christian versions throughout the world. But then he dismisses them as part of an anti-consumption mindset that “results from a fundamental confusion between steady improvements in societal wealth, which we should indeed all desire, and individual greed, which has correctly been denounced by so many prophets” (p.104).
For me, those things are not so easily separated. Societal wealth, as the religious critics understood, is mostly not material wealth. And even with the focus on material wealth alone, the main path that modern societies have taken to augment it is through unleashing individual greed, and indeed enshrining it in economic instruments that limit any other possibilities – this is the basis of capitalist development. ‘Steady improvement in societal wealth’ is an abstraction. It only becomes apparent to me through a steady improvement in my wealth (even if that wealth is manifested collectively in my locality) and a vague hope that unknown others are experiencing it too – a hope more likely vain than vague when you consider the dependence of capitalist development on colonialism in the past and neo-colonialism today12. When he writes about class, Phillips decries the use of the term ‘we’: “all this talk of “we” in the developed world…of “our” overconsumption, of an undifferentiated mass of big spenders, ignores the billowingly large class differences that exist in the global north”13. True perhaps, yet these differences are not so billowingly large as those between the global north and south14. The self-appointing admonitory ‘we’ that Phillips decries in the case of class difference returns to his thinking when it comes to the politics of abstracted consumerist plenty that “we should all desire”.
Yet it’s plain that ‘our’ overconsumption, the overconsumption of the global north, is built on the past and present penury of others. So even if ‘we’ do indeed all desire an improvement in collective wealth, ‘we’ don’t share equally in it, and the remedy for this lies not in cargo cults, not in a bourgeois fever dream of shopping malls for all, but in a different way of grounding production within the capacities of our selves and our locales – in other words, to a politics of relocalisation, degrowth, peasant sensibility, sufficiency, or what I’ve here termed home economics. It’s true that some variants of these latter traditions can be tight-lipped and joyless, blind to the simple pleasure of material things. People are endlessly creative when it comes to reinventing ways of feeling superior to others. But I don’t see that the PlayStation-wielders of contemporary Britain are happier, more richly connected people than scythe-wielding peasants or neo-peasants of the past or present. Indeed, since Phillips bangs on with such mirthless ridicule about scythes throughout his book, I’d like to invite him to cut a quarter acre of Lucerne ley with a well-peened Austrian scythe and another quarter with ‘the latest’ Stihl brushcutter, and ask him which tool gives the greater material pleasure. Whatever their faults, I think the tattooed-and-bearded kale-botherers can see through the emptiness of Phillips’ millenarian consumerism and are searching for a better way to find fulfilment.
There’s much they can learn from the peasant lifeways and peasant politics of the past, but there’s no escaping the fact that a turn to home economics in a country like Britain today would involve a constructed peasantry, built from the ruins of modernism, and not one that was authentic to any past tradition (indeed, in Britain more than most countries, it’s arguable that there never was a peasantry). Forging a constructed peasantry out of essentially nothing is harder to do than bolstering an existing one, but it has certain advantages. It inoculates against the kind of nationalist mystifications and crypto-fascism identified by Phillips among others around the peasant concept, and it circumvents all the tedious posturing about who the ‘real’ peasants or ‘real’ farmers are. It may also make it easier to avoid the fate of the American populists, whose ‘resolutely modernist’ admiration for urban capitalism gave them few defences when their small farm world was engrossed by the big kit acolytes of industrial farming. A peasantry creating itself out of urban modernism would probably be less starry-eyed about the technological marvels of industrial capitalism, more adept at picking and choosing worthwhile technologies for a sustainable small farm future, and less hidebound by the patriarchy and social conservatism typical of traditional peasant society.
On the other hand, a constructed, post-modern peasantry would probably find it harder to learn a culture of sufficiency, accustomed as it is to the abstracted consumption of modernity. And this would be an important thing to learn, because it’s only when you can take care of your fundamental needs for yourself and go to market as a wry performer rather than a dependent or a supplicant that you can avoid fostering the destructive dynamic of capitalist compound growth. That indeed would be the greatest political danger in moving towards a neo-peasant society – not some kind of regressive feudalism or Khmer Rouge-style peasant dystopia15, but a shortcut back to an inegalitarian and accumulative capitalism. To avoid that, an enduring neo-peasant society would need to be a socialist society of some kind. And to achieve it, it would require a democratic state.
The democratic socialist state
Phillips also argues for a democratic socialist state, but I think the one he envisages is different from the one I do. I say ‘I think’ because his account of the democratic socialism he advocates is so thin it’s hard to tell. In fact, he describes it as “beyond the scope of this book” (p.215) – which might be fair enough but for the fact that he puts such a heavy loading on the concept of democracy to right all the wrongs of both capitalism and green leftism that without a proper account of what his ‘democracy’ actually is it functions more as a magical incantation than a political argument.
But let me try to draw out the implications of Phillips’ democracy from the few shreds he offers to contrast it with my own. Democracy seems to occur when “local communities are genuinely involved in planning and implementation” (p.187). Again, the class differentiation that he stresses elsewhere in the book goes missing in favour of that conservative catchall, “the local community”. Is this the “local community” that you witness at council planning boards as the usual assortment of retired colonels, local worthies and NIMBYs weigh in on applications for gypsy sites or low impact smallholdings? Perhaps Phillips would argue that this kind of community involvement isn’t ‘genuine’, which prompts the question of what is?
The answer seems to be a process in which “all economic actions occur as a result of rational decision-making on the basis of maximum utility to society” (p.227). So probably still no local gypsy sites, then. And maybe no kulaks, or undesirables polluting the purity of the local Volk either. Phillips’ notion of democracy is an unhappy mixture of “local community” conservatism, the majoritarian dictatorship of strong utilitarian thought, and the totalitarianism of pure reason abstracted from the Enlightenment. At worst, it looks a lot like the Bolshevism that he condemns with suspicious over-eagerness throughout his book. And at best, it lacks internal logic – Phillips construes a politics where abstracted consumers meet their unlimited wants from wherever in the world can satisfy them most cheaply and efficiently, but who then suddenly become wise guardians of the greater human good, putting a stop to resource depletion or labour exploitation in distant places because their politics are – here comes the magic incantation – ‘democratic’. “If a certain form of pollution offers less utility to society than not polluting in that way”, he writes, “then we simply do not do so” (p.61). All this talk of ‘we’…
Phillips writes “If democracy has an upper bound, then small-is-beautiful theorists will have to explain the mechanism through which this upper bound imposes itself” (p.112). Well, one such mechanism is the contradiction I’ve just outlined between abstracted global consumption and grounded local self-determination. Marx’s analysis of the commodity form – the alienation implicit in obtaining goods made by unknown others in circumstances of which we’re ignorant – would be another way of framing it. Yet Marxists have never had much truck with the enchantment of things in local artisanal production. To my mind such experiments in localism better overcome the alienation of commodities diagnosed by Marx than the crude collectivisation and command-and-control economics of the communist regimes that have invoked his name.
To go beyond the farcical ‘democracy’ of communism, western party politics or Phillips-style utilitarianism I think we need to look at richer conceptions of democracy, such as the notions of deliberative democracy described, among many others, by political theorist Bert van den Brink,
The practice of deliberative democracy….relies heavily on decentred public spheres in which public opinion is generated through communicative practices. These public spheres consist of a diffuse public of authors and readers, spokespersons, and the groups for whom they speak, who are affected by problems that call for normatively legitimated treatment16
This is another reason why democracy needs to be grounded in ‘small-is-beautiful’ local practice as well as more universalist ideas like freedom or justice. People may properly reach out to unknown others through the latter, but in terms of a real deliberative engagement with the problems that affect them caused by others the motivation to overcome them has to be decentred, local and engaged with the particularity of actual people’s lives – and when those lives are more fully focused on producing sustainable livelihoods in the local sphere, perhaps some of the political choices at stake become clearer.
Let me take an example that Phillips uses, the groaningly familiar one to British horticulturists that “tomato farmers in sunny Spain produce less CO2 than tomato farmers in frequently overcast Britain employing heated greenhouses” (p.119). In the world of abstracted, universal consumerism, large-scale British tomato growers need to compete with Spanish ones, and do so by heating their greenhouses with fossil fuels to get an early crop. But in the world of artisanal production, you just don’t get early tomatoes. Certainly, none of the local growers that I know heat their greenhouses. Hell, there are other things to eat, what’s wrong with waiting until the summer? And should we really be importing all that water from Spain, which is not only ‘sunny’ but also highly arid? If you want early tomatoes in a localist, artisanal economy you’re best off figuring out how to grow them for yourself – unless you think it’s such an important issue that you successfully mobilise your local community to divert energy or fiscal resources into local (and maybe cleaner) production or tomato imports.
In short, ‘small-is-beautiful’ democracy prompts a more specific analysis than abstracted consumerism about what you can produce for yourself, what things you need that you really can’t, how to fund the latter from the former, and what effects those needs will have on others. That last point is important in distinguishing my position from versions of right-wing libertarianism that construe the individual as sovereign and pre-social. We need to try to realise ourselves prior to the market, but not prior to society, which is impossible because we are intrinsically social.
Intrinsically social, but not intrinsically socialist. In the ‘small-is-beautiful’ polity, a strong egalitarian ethic is needed to avoid a slippage into all manner of intrigue and power-broking that reverts the polity to capitalism or tribute-taking of other kinds. But once you’ve abandoned the notion that a modernist utopia will be delivered on a plate by the proletariat as the privileged agents of some scientific law of history, it’s hard to see how to make that ethic stick. Historic peasant societies provide examples of strong egalitarianism from which much can be learned. But they also provide the opposite and, as I’ve already mentioned, one of the hardest tasks facing a constructed post-modern peasantry is how to transform such lessons into implicit practice. For now, I think I’ll plead the Phillips amendment and say that outlining a plausible structure for a neo-peasant or ‘home economics’ state is “beyond the scope of this essay”. But it’s a crucial issue on which I hope to write some more in the future. I can’t see that it will be anything other than a difficult process strewn with dilemmas and contradictions, not something that can just be magicked up out of incantatory words like ‘democracy’ or ‘universal class’. But to my mind it possesses more inherent political logic than the notion of a democratic, utilitarian, non-capitalist, universalist, growth-oriented, sustainable, egalitarian, industrial, materialist order espoused by Phillips. Therefore it provides a more coherent basis around which to organise politically than the mishmash of concepts he abstracts from the Enlightenment and its troubled legacy.
Socialist home economics
Discussing new technologies that may help mitigate climate change, Phillips writes: “By turning its back on the possibility of such technologies, on the very idea of progress, green anti-modernism actually commits us to catastrophic climate change” (p.186, original emphasis). Leaving aside the point that ‘green anti-modernism’ turns its back more upon Phillips’ style of sky’s-the-limit cornucopianism than upon technology per se, and leaving aside too the rhetorical chicanery here that somehow makes low impact back-to-the-landers especially culpable for climate change, I can find some room for agreement. It’s easy to retreat from politics, to literally and figuratively tend your own garden, to give up on trying to transform the state because the state seems so intransigently untransformable or because you don’t believe there ought to be a state anyway. And I think Phillips is right that ultimately this won’t be enough.
But I still think the ‘crunchy’ green back-to-the-land anarchist neo-peasants who Phillips relentlessly pillories in his book are a more positive historical force than his strange class of post-industrial McNugget-eating proletarian almost-revolutionary democrats because, for all the wrong turns, contradictions or hypocrisies involved, and however imperfectly, the former are trying to recover for modern times that most crucial of aims, a practice of sufficiency. Most societies, most religions and most ethics have found a positive place for the idea of enough and sought to limit or at least to channel that restless and somewhat infantile human insatiability for material increase. The modernity that Phillips champions is unusual in the degree to which it celebrates it unreservedly as a positive force. “We are nature,” writes Phillips “and all that we do to nature is natural” (p.85). True enough, but since we’re nature then all that we do to each other is natural too. And yet we limit it. The murderer does not escape sanction because the crime was ‘natural’. Mature humans recognise the dangers of their own ‘natural’ self-regarding desires and construct ethical frameworks to limit the damage, which are also ‘natural’ but require work to construct and work to maintain.
Socialism has been part of that work, but the kind of vulgar Marxist socialism espoused by Phillips needs an overhaul. The banality of his ever-expanding, demotic consumerism, its basic indistinguishability from capitalism, seems to confirm those critiques of Marxism that see it as just a mirror of capitalism17. Another socialism is possible. Which is why I want to associate myself with back-to-the-landers, neo-peasants, craftspeople, local traders, woodfolk, gleaners, buy-nothingers, common property buffs, transition towners, local money types, and all the rest of the ‘crunchy green’ home economics crowd – not because they have any simple answers about how to achieve it, or because I necessarily agree with everything they do, but because I think they may in time come up with better, more complex answers than the left-wing or right-wing politics of modernism which I find ironically to be more nostalgic than anything espoused by the average scythe-wielding neo-peasant. I’m sure that part of the answer may involve class alliances linking traditional working and middle classes with the growing group of ‘home economist’ farmers in small regionalised states, as I’ve argued elsewhere18. But only after the illusions of limitless growth and scientific socialism are firmly laid to rest, and the practice of home economics better established.
1. It’s interesting that ‘home economics’ was a serious academic discipline around the turn of the 20th century when the decline of domestic service threatened the smooth functioning of the middle-class home. That crisis was averted by the emergence of a high-energy domestic appliance industry. Might home economics rise again for related reasons?
2. Zero Books, 2015.
5. Wallerstein, I. (1989). ‘The French Revolution as a world-historical event’ Social Research, 56, 1: 33-52.
6. eg. Dayan, J. (1995). Haiti, History and the Gods, University of California Press.
10. For an example of such a serious analysis, see Patel, R. (2013) Stuffed and Starved, Portobello.
11. Mitrany, D. (1951). Marx Against The Peasant, University of North Carolina Press.
12. Arguments pressed among many others by Arrighi, G. (2009) Adam Smith in Beijing, Verso, and Heller, H. (2011) The Birth of Capitalism, Pluto.
14. See reference 8
15. The few modern states that have opted for economic or ‘peasant’ autarky have tended to be pariah states with extremist governments which deliberately wish to cut themselves loose from the global economy, such as Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. But I’d argue there’s no necessary relationship between the pursuit of economic autarky and political terror. It’s surely possible for states to agree upon relatively autarkic economic development within a broader amicable multilateral global order, perhaps somewhat along the lines of debates about political subsidiarity.
16. van den Brink, B. (2000). The Tragedy of Liberalism, SUNY Press, p.112.
17. Eg. Baudrillard, J. (1975). The Mirror of Production, Telos.
Photo credit: From the Landworkers’ Alliance publication: Feeding the Future