Beyond authenticity: the politics of agrarian localism

September 21, 2020

Ed. note: I am combining Chris’ 2 posts in this series from his blog into one post here on Resilience.org.

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.

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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.

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.


Teaser photo credit: By Netherzone – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82188002

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: Extinction Rebellion, left agrarian populism, small farm future, social change