Food & Water

The Straight Story on Farming

September 7, 2021

Again, a perfectly wonderful book raised my ire by throwing out a tired trope — the assertion that all our societal woes date to the “inception of agriculture” (which phrase is itself a red flag that raises my blood pressure; there is no such point in time or place). This time the claim that farming is to blame for rising violence and inequality came in an otherwise excellent review of our food systems. I will refrain from naming because the rest of the book is worthy reading and I’d like people to do that. So I am making this a general complaint. Another ramble that I hope will show that farming is not the problem and never has been.

Farming is not to blame for our societal disfunction. Our brokenness came not from farming, not even the foul industrial variety. Our brokenness is rooted in inequality, hierarchy, greed, the pursuit of wealth and status, and the general avoidance of work. This is a brokenness made by those who care nothing for this world — while farmers generally care a great deal about this world and their tiny piece of it. Farmers didn’t create our problems. Farmers create food. Full stop.

It is probably not a coincidence that privileged people point their fingers at farming when asked to explain inequality and injustice in the system that benefits them. Farmers always fall on the far side of privilege. Farmers are not now and never have been in control of much of anything, certainly not society. Farmers rarely have a voice. They can’t defend themselves against accusations from those with a platform and an audience. They can’t defend themselves at all except by wielding pitchforks and antique shotguns (which aren’t even effective at deterring squirrels, never mind aggressive humans with automatic weaponry and publishing contracts). Farmers lack resources, power, and respect. And most people today have insufficient contact with farmers or farming to know that blaming agriculture for our woes is both unfair and unlikely. So this idea that farming is to blame is lately growing into a foundational myth in our unrooted and disconnected society. Myth, in this case, meaning both a story we tell to explain our world and a false narrative, a fabrication, a lie.

You see, it simply does not follow that exercising some control over creating the food supply — farming — necessarily leads to inequality. Humans are not natively violent or hierarchical. We have our passions and our preferences but we don’t intrinsically separate ourselves into hierarchical groups that we maintain through violent force. This is an imposed state. While most societies farm in one way or another — indeed, most animals seek to regulate their food resources; that’s sort of the point of being mobile — very few societies become hierarchical. There is certainly no connection between the act of farming, which takes place in rural areas and is done by people with very little political power, and the establishment of a system of inequality, which is normally urban and requires a good deal of political power over others. This assertion that the rise of agriculture led to the fall of man is just plain illogical. The rise of some men led to the fall of man. Agriculture had nothing to do with it. And in any case, farming existed in one form or another for thousands, if not millions of years before the rise of generalized injustice.

There is this recent but now endemic idea that the reason we see the beginnings of militarization and increasing violence in the early days of civilization (which is not farming, but the urbanization of both the landless and the leaders) is that farmers wanted to protect their crops from marauding freeloaders. That is not what we see in the record, nor do we see it today. Farmers did not and do not live in urban areas. They did not create cities with walled defenses. They had no more to do with civilization then than they do today. Farmers grew the food that fed the cities. That’s it. Furthermore, farmers don’t control the military nor do they stockpile weaponry, not ever in the historic record, but certainly not back at the dawn of farming — wherever that line is drawn. Indeed, we see throughout history that farmers are conscripted against their very vocal wishes to serve (and die) in military conflicts, carrying those pitchforks and shotguns into battles they don’t want to fight, don’t even understand usually. They’re not protecting their own property, neither the productivity of their labors nor the land that labored with them. No, in every respect, they are serving others, doing the military work and producing the food to serve political leaders. Human on human violence is almost always related to someone taking more than his fair share — be that food, property or sex. Military might was created explicitly to allow some men to take what they wanted from those who produced it. These are not farmers protecting their harvest; they are thieves taking that harvest from the farmers.

The impulse to take without recompense or equity from producers is tied together with human ideas of prestige and status. Work is denigrated and taking what you want from workers is rewarded, but it is very difficult to work out which came first. Do we denigrate work because those who take from others must make it appear that they have some rightful reason to do so? They are superior people who have mighty swords; they are above work — that sort of idea. Or do we accord high status to those people who have decided to ignore basic decency and take from producers because none of us really like hard labor? It is probably both. Nobody likes to weed the veg patch nor clean the threshing floor. I’m quite sure there were decisions made to steal the productivity of others just to avoid doing things nobody likes doing. And once a few men had done that, the rest were probably envious enough to give those first politicians a grudging respect.

Now let’s take a moment to look at that word, politician. It is one of those words that has very little meaning outside of self-reference, and those sorts of words are always sign-posts to intentional obfuscation, a cover-up for history, usually a history of malfeasance. Politician is one who does politics. Well and good. Politics is then defined as the “art and science of governing”. Though there are those who would rather it be thought of as a capricious business with no center guiding principles.

Politicks is the science of good sense, applied to public affairs, and, as those are forever changing, what is wisdom to-day would be folly and perhaps, ruin to-morrow. Politicks is not a science so properly as a business. It cannot have fixed principles, from which a wise man would never swerve, unless the inconstancy of men’s view of interest and the capriciousness of the tempers could be fixed. [Fisher Ames (1758-1808), “British Alliance,” in the Boston Repertory, November 1806]

Well, then… In any case, what is government? It is the “act of governing or ruling”. Does this seem a bit circular so far? Well, ruling will straighten it out, perhaps, because is derived from the Latin regula — the very same base for the the word religion — and its meaning is “to make straight”. The proposed Proto-IndoEuropean root word is *reg, “to move in a straight line”. All these words related to controlling others derive from the idea that preference is shown to lines, not circles. A “ruled life” is one that walks a linear path with no curving deviations or doublings. And to rule, to govern, to engage in politics, is to enforce that straight way.

But what does that mean? Ah, now here is where history and linguistics get very interesting.

How do you view a life? Or, more generally, time? Since you are probably reading this in English, I’d wager you assume without much intentional consideration that there is a beginning, a being, and an end — a linear progression in which there is no repetition, nor even any possibility of repetition. You can’t be born twice, except in some metaphorical fashion (which is ironically most often related to EuroWestern religion and is, therefore, a straightening of your life path). This linear view of time is actually not a very common notion though. Most peoples outside of EuroWestern society believe that time and life are circular, repetitive, cyclical. Most people believe that much of what is has been before, at least in broad terms. This is a flowing, collective and systematic view of time and life which probably cleaves closer to actual physics and biology than the discreet points and lines in EuroWestern philosophy — which are explicitly artificial, pulled out of reality, not true. The idea that time and life are linear is not related to what we actually experience in the world, not even in our disconnected culture. We know that lines don’t actually exist. Still we accord them preference. Lines are dominant in our culture precisely because of the need to break out of the cyclical flow of time and matter in order to make some folks into unique and superior individuals. But there is a great deal of obfuscation around this relationship between special privilege and discreet linearity and even more so around any idea that time and life are continuous cycles.

EuroWestern languages make it very difficult to think in terms of cyclical time. This is probably by design. EuroWestern languages, with all these vaguely defined line-based words for according privilege, were molded by those who had taken those privileges for themselves. If you are to accord yourself any special status, you must be seen as unique, or at least different in a superior fashion to those without privilege. But you can’t be special and unique if you are just some part of a larger entity. And there is no special part of a circle. No beginning, no end. Harvests may vary, but there are no radical differences from one year to the next. Specialness is not found in a cyclical world view.

So the first task in taking privilege is one of naming and story-telling. Words and ideas are shaped to fit this new narrative. Thus our notions of repetition and circularity — ideas that we formed as farmers rooted in the real world of seasonal flow — were straightened and broken into disconnected pieces. *Reg, a word merely meaning “to move in a straight line”, turned into religionruleregulate — all words that relate to power structures in society, nothing at all to do with motion or even linearity. Similarly, words that are not linear took on negative meanings. Spiral — which we now know is the actual basic structure of living matter — is associated with falling into chaos. We are “trapped” in a cycle. Repetition is… boring. All these words do not mean intrinsically negative things. A circle is just a circle. These words have been assigned adverse associations in order to denigrate them. Just as we denigrate producers by calling them rednecks and pagans.

Our linear ideology and its resultant language flows from the establishment of a hierarchy of privileges — a hierarchy in which those who do no work take from those who do productive work, especially those who produce food. These words for a special class of humans that are meant to impose straight lines on society are in opposition to the common worldview that sees time and life as cyclical — just like the agricultural year — and views nothing, nobody, as particularly unique. Difference is subtle, by degrees, not by sharp, unassailable divisions. There are no intrinsically special people because nobody is actually all that different from anyone else. We’re all equal parts of the continuous spiraling process that is life. And this is true within our species — no human is superior or special to any others — as well as between humans and all the other life forms out there, including the planet we live within.

Rulers must break from from this circle in order to rule. And the people that cling most staunchly to these cyclical beliefs are… ta-da! farmers. Particularly the original and still numerically predominant farmers, women. Rulers must make metaphorical lines of life so that they can be special and superior compared to those who do productive work — because only special and superior people have a “right” to appropriate the proceeds without doing that work themselves. Rulers must regulate the circular paths of farming so they can eat without ever pulling a weed or cleaning the threshing floor.

And so we see a very typical human response from these rulers — psychological projection. All that these marauders are shamed by is thrown onto those who have been wronged, those who do the necessary work — women, people in various “racial” out-groups, and farmers. In fact, it seems to me that many groups of humans were forced out of privileged status specifically because they were and are associated with farming and other productive and reproductive work.

All this would be academic if it truly only related to the past. However, all our stories about the past, all our names and words, these are how we relate to the present. This is how we see the world. This is who and how we are, not were. We are still according status to those who take without doing much work, and we are still blaming producers — and now agriculture generally — for the damages inflicted upon the world by those with privilege. And those damages are mounting.

In a recent post from TomDispatch, Michael Klare discusses the unlikelihood of China becoming a military threat by mid-century since the People’s Liberation Army, like every other military force, will be spending an increasing amount of time and resources on climate mitigation.

In reality, as global temperatures rise, [China] will be ravaged by the severe effects of the never-ending climate emergency and forced to deploy every instrument of government, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), to defend the nation against ever more disastrous floods, famines, droughts, wildfires, sandstorms, and encroaching oceans. China will hardly be alone in this. Already, the increasingly severe effects of the climate crisis are forcing governments to commit military and paramilitary forces to firefighting, flood prevention, disaster relief, population resettlement, and sometimes the simple maintenance of basic governmental functions.

Step back and consider this. Because this casual assumption that the military have any business in helping people in times of disaster scares the crap out of me. “Simple maintenance of basic governmental functions” by a hierarchical body that answers to a very small cabal of privileged men and that has its own basic function of killing other people. We are to be straightened out in times of whirling chaos by the people with guns.

Now, notice that there are no farmers involved.

Violence begets violence. There is not a peaceful use of a military body. Farming begets food and quite often obstructs violence. Is it not more natural to turn to those who tend to the land and grow our sustenance from it when we face land-based adversities? Shouldn’t we be seeking a productive path through the messes that those with privilege, those with military might, have created? And aren’t farmers sort of the ideal people for that job?

We need to clean up our threshing floor, that place where the harvest of all that we’ve done is sorted out. All these stories that blame agriculture for the rise of violence and degradation and inequality, all these words that try to break specialness and privilege out of the circle of life, all these fabricated myths need to be wiped clear so we can work on regeneration. All the little people that the military is supposed to be governing, straightening — they are the ones that will be adapting to our ever-more-disastrous climate. They — we — will be the ones piling the sandbags and dousing the fires. We should also be the ones to decide which streams need banking and which fires need to be put out. But we are the ones with very few privileges and very little power over politics. We are, not coincidentally, largely the producers in this world. As it was in the beginning… farmers need protection from those who have taken privileges, not protection by the military might of those privileged marauders. The least we could do is get the story straight.


Teaser photo credit: Agricultural scenes of threshing, a grain store, harvesting with sickles, digging, tree-cutting and ploughing from Ancient Egypt. Tomb of Nakht, 15th century BC. By Norman de Garis Davies, Nina Davies (2-dimensional 1 to 1 Copy of an 15th century BC Picture) – Matthias Seidel, Abdel Ghaffar Shedid: Das Grab des Nacht. Kunst und Geschichte eines Beamtengrabes der 18. Dynastie in Theben-West, von Zabern, Mainz 1991 ISBN 3805313322, Public Domain,

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: agriculture, building resilient societies, cultural stories, farmers, history, work