In his book Small Farm Future Chris Smaje worries about some problems that might arise in a society in which these kinds of farms meet most food demand.  This area is also targeted by Alex Heffron and Kai Heron in their critique of the book, which their Marxist position leads them to see as only advocating a “petite-bourgeoise” vision and thus no satisfactory solution to the problems capitalism is causing. It seems to me that both are overlooking the fact that in the future conditions will be radically different to what they are now and will determine that the problems under discussion will be minimal if they arise at all.

The concerns are firstly to do with whether or not small farms mostly run by families will generate the kinds of conflicts that have been common in peasant societies in the past, especially to do with patriarchal domination and marginalisation of women and children, and secondly to do with whether it is satisfactory to leave the farming sector in the hands of private enterprise.  Heffron and Heron do not make clear what they would want but it would seem that the core Marxist principle of eliminating private ownership of the means of production would lead them to advocate state ownership of the farming sector.

Both parties are analysing these issues in terms of how things worked in peasant societies and how things are organised and thought about in present society. My argument is that this is not the right approach, because things will be very different in the near future. So I must first take some space to explain my reasons for thinking this.

Both parties refer to the trouble the Bolsheviks had with the richer peasant class in which farmers could be seen as capitalists intent on securing more land and wealth and thus not interested in socialist revolution. Lenin et al. therefore cracked down hard on them. Small Farm Future could give the impression that the small farms will be functioning according to institutions and mentalities that prevail today, that is, whereby farmers are independent “business-people” sinking or swimming by selling produce into markets, and are able and keen to accumulate wealth as individual competing mini-entrepreneurs, and thus able to eventually differ greatly in wealth. Heffron and Heron see this as enabling the acquisition of more land by the more successful and thus believe it will lead to landlordism. Their solution again seems to be to eliminate private firms. Chris recognises the problem but seems only to say that this might have to be dealt with by “public” means, without detailing how.

My point is that those conditions and that mentality will not be characteristic of our society in coming decades. The situation will be very different. This is because we have grossly exceeded the limits to growth and have begun a descent into a probably terminal time of great troubles in which much that we take for granted today will be swept away. This will include globalisation, industrialisation, centralisation, urbanisation, financilisation, economic growth, affluence, and capitalism, … and possibly “civilisation”. Many analysts foresee us as having entered a descent into chaotic breakdown and some expect the “die-off” of billions. I have no doubt we are heading in that direction, and that rapid onset collapse is likely to be triggered by implosion of the now massive global debt levels and/or the death of the fracking industry. The hope has to be for a Goldilocks deep depression, not severe enough to destroy all hope of reconstruction but savage enough to jolt people into realising that the old affluence and growth path was a dreadful mistake and that some kind of Simpler Way is the only viable option.

Is this a bit too hysterical? Most people, including most good green people and most in the degrowth movement, have no idea how extremely unsustainable this society is. In a recent paper I give a detailed numerical case that per capita resource consumption in rich countries is around 10 times the level that could be provided sustainably to all the worlds present population. If you are assuming that in 2050 10 billion people are going to live as we in rich countries would be living given 3% economic growth, then the multiple is around 20.

That means we in the over-developed-countries must face up to something like 90% reductions in per capita resource use. There is no possibility of achieving such reductions unless we achieve the greatest and most rapid transition in history, from affluence-and-growth obsessed consumer-capitalist society to one that is based on mostly small, highly self-sufficient and self-governing communities running stable local economies to meet the needs of all, with a culture that has abandoned the quest for wealth and is about providing a high quality of life via largely non-material sources of life satisfaction. (For a detailed vision see The Alternative Society; The Simpler Way.) The chances of achieving this transition are not at all good, but my argument is that it is the only option. We achieve it or we go down. The belief that technical advance can enable continued growth while reducing resource and ecological impacts to sustainable levels, is demolished by the huge volume of contrary evidence on the “decoupling” claim.

The reasons why a sustainable and just society must be localised, self-governing, cooperative and frugal are made clear by our study of egg supply. We found that supply via the normal supermarket path was around 50 to 200 times those of eggs produced in  backyards and local poultry cooperatives. The supermarket egg has a vast and complex global input supply chain involving fishing fleets, agribusiness feed production, shipping and trucking transport, warehousing, chemicals, infrastructures, supermarkets, storage, packaging, marketing, finance and advertising and insurance industries, waste removal and dumping, computers, a commuting workforce, OH&S provisions, and highly trained technicians. It also involves damage to ecosystems, especially via carbon emissions and agribusiness effects including the non-return of nutrients to soils.

However eggs supplied via small, integrated village cooperatives can avoid almost all of these costs, while enabling immediate use of all “wastes” and reaping collateral benefits. Recycling of kitchen and garden scraps along with free ranging can meet total poultry nutrient needs. Poultry and other animal manures, including human, can be directly fed into compost heaps, methane digesters, algae and fish ponds, thereby eliminating the need for inputs to village food production from the fertilizer industry. No transport need be involved. Care and maintenance of systems can be largely informal, via spontaneous discussion and action. In addition, cooperative care of animals adds to amenity and leisure resources and facilitates community bonding.

These kinds of arrangements can have similar effects in many other domains, including other food items, dwelling construction, clothing supply, welfare and educational and other services, and especially in provision for leisure, entertainment and education.

Note especially that the alternative involves very different systems to those in consumer-capitalist society. Consider the present ridiculous sewage system. It has vast networks of large pipes and pumping stations to throw away all nutrients taken from the soil, whereas the small community can recycle them to the nearby gardens with almost no resource or energy costs, and substantial ecological benefits.

So, given the need to get the resource demands right down, it is evident that only the small community can do it.

Now back to the main theme; the foregoing points set a context in which I think the difficulties raised by Chris, Alex and Kai would largely if not entirely cease to occur.  As the breakdown deepens states will be less and less able to provide and people will increasingly realise that they will have to go seriously local in order to set up arrangements which will produce as many basic goods and services as they can, and organise their own networks between towns in their region. The main arena will be food production and the many community gardens that now exist have pioneered the way.

What matters most here is the new culture that must be in place or the local community cannot work well if at all. The community must be run by enthusiastic citizens who are empowered to manage their situation and fate via the town assemblies, committees and working bees, fully in control of its basically co-operative needs-driven economy. They must be very conscious of the need to work together to find the best solutions for the town, to provide for all. They cannot be out to get rich; they must understand that any interest in accumulating wealth and property will eventually destroy the town. So above all, high value must be put on simplicity and frugality, in the knowledge that the town provides rich sources of non-material life satisfaction (such as having to work for money only two days a week and never having to fear unemployment.)

In my firm opinion this new economy can and should involve mostly small privately owned firms and co-ops … functioning according to strict guidelines set by the town. These would ensure that no business owner would try to become a tycoon taking over others (because no one would buy from him if he tried.) Many people are very keen to own and run their own little shop or enterprise or farm, doing things the way they want to, enjoying the capacity to innovate and make and grow things their way. Just about no one likes working on an agribusiness mega-farm, or in an egg factory, let alone on a state farm as Heffron and Heron seem to be advocating. As Bookchin said, Marx wanted the workers to help kick out one set of bosses and then obey the orders of the next lot.

There is, in other words, no need to eliminate all private productive property; there is only a need to ensure that it is geared to socially important purposes. In the new settlements this will happen because the economy will be organised by us to ensure that it does, and because the situation will make producing to meet town needs into satisfying secure livelihoods. We would never allow a firm to go bankrupt or anyone to be unemployed. The town will need everyone to help produce what we need for a high quality of life, so when problems arise we will work out how best to revise arrangements to make sure everyone is provided for.

There could still be a (small) market sector determining supply of non-necessities but it would not be allowed to make any important production, distribution or investment decisions.

More important than these new institutional arrangements would be the fact that owners of small farms and shops would see their ventures as secure and enjoyable ways of contributing to town needs while earning a sufficient income.  The motivation would not be to get rich, let alone to accumulate surpluses to invest in acquiring land or to enable receipt of income without working and contributing. People would realise that their quality of life depend not on their personal wealth but on how well the town is functioning, how well the working bees and town meetings and concerts are attended, how strong the sense of community and cohesion is, how conscientious its citizens are, how ready to help and trouble-shoot, how prolific the leisure committee is in organising interesting events. These are the attitudes and ways that you will find in many eco-villages today.

But is all this too much to expect, of a species with 12,000 years of conditioning to prioritise individualism, competitiveness and aggressive wealth acquisition?  If so, we won’t make it, so we had better try hard to get these ways in place.  But it is easy to overlook the powerful forces that will be at work generating cooperation and good citizenship and satisfaction with frugality.  The Simpler Way requires goodness, but it also rewards it. The situation generates synergism.

These new conditions will defuse if not entirely eliminate the problems Chris, Heffron and Herron worry about. Hunter gatherer societies have mechanisms which prevent the emergence of inequality and greedy tyrants; our citizens and town institutions can easily do it, knowing that their future welfare depends on doing so. Anyway in a thriving community there are far more enjoyable things to do with your short and precious life than try to get rich. Those private owners of farms and shops and little firms will not constitute a petite bourgeoisie. They won’t be allowed to and they won’t want to.

And it is not so likely that there will be patriarchal relations on the family farm, given that the stresses caused by struggle to survive in a free market will have been eliminated, there will be strong connections between family members and the cohesive and supportive community (with its wise village elders skilled at quietly discussing and subtly defusing problems.) The town will be very sociologically sophisticated, highly conscious of the fact that everything depends on the maintenance of social cohesion, equity and justice, morale, conscientiousness and enjoyment of living there. And there will be formal arrangements for dealing with problems individually or publicly recognised, from gardening and energy supply to morale and depression. Bhutan monitors Gross National Happiness; the new settlements will monitor a wide range of biological and social factors important for their maintenance.

Chris’s book is in my view very important in arguing for the viability of small farms, and thus supporting the claim that they will be crucial in a sustainable future.  But there are many more factors that must be considered than food supply for this revolution, including replacing capitalism and the organisation of viable new economies…and above all the transition to a radically new culture.