Ted Trainer has recently published a critical if fairly friendly essay about aspects of my book A Small Farm Future, called ‘Small Farm Future: why some anticipated problems will not arise’. In it, he references Alex Heffron and Kai Heron’s critical and considerably less friendly essay about my book. I’d been thinking about responding when I came across an article by Sarah Mock called “I tried to prove that small family farms are the future. I couldn’t do it”. Mock is a former associate of Chris Newman, author of the widely aired essay “Small family farms aren’t the answer”. Also languishing on my to do list has been the idea of writing a response to Col Gordon’s podcast series Landed about regenerative farming in the Scottish Highlands, which I found excellent in almost every respect apart from its oft-repeated refrain that “the small family farm is a colonial concept”.
There’s considerable overlap between these various interventions around what I think are some quite problematic, if commonly held, views concerning individualism, collectivism, property and capitalism, and their implications for a small farm future. So since they’re somewhat a propos to the point I’ve reached in this blog cycle, I thought I’d address this using some of the aforementioned interventions as my cues. As someone who thinks that small family farms probably are the answer (depending a bit on what the question is) it seems worth stating the case for them, which I do below in the form of some bold declarations that I subsequently try to justify. I hope this may clarify key points of agreement and disagreement with the people mentioned above.
1. The small family farm is a resilient and successful socio-economic form. Mock’s essay heralding the demise of the small family farm is but one contribution to a voluminous global literature dating back centuries. Yet such farms keep holding on, or even springing up, in each new generation worldwide. You don’t see articles heralding the demise of the small family firm of carmakers, because such firms are long gone and the prospects for a household to scratch a living by manufacturing and selling cars are zero. Not so for producing and selling food. Hence, I’d suggest the considerable success of the small family farm is worth emphasizing.
There are two main reasons for its persistence. The first is that the forces of capitalization, rationalization, massification and industrialization that have revolutionized most industries, though all too apparent in agriculture too, have been less successful in this sector than most others, essentially because living ecologies are quite hard to commodify. The second is that possession of a small spread of land enables people to extricate themselves at least partially from those same forces of capitalization and massification, and this is therefore a permanently appealing possibility to people who seek autonomy from those forces.
As I see it, these two issues are likely to play out in the future in ways that make small farms much more common than they presently are in the rich countries. Indeed, while Mock is right that the present structure of the economy makes life hard for the small commercial farmer, the writing is manifestly on the wall for that structure, and the economy to come is likely to be more conducive to the small farmer, if not necessarily to the small commercial farmer.
2. The small family farm has worldwide appeal, and is not intrinsically a ‘colonial concept’. Mock claims in her article that the romantic ideal of a small family farm is virtually unique to the USA, but this is patently false. There’s a version of it in pretty much every country in the world. For sure, it’s invariably complicated by often bitter local histories of landlord domination, ethnic strife or colonial oppression, and it’s contested by the modernist lure of urbanism and its projected riches – a lure that, in my opinion, is every bit as romantic and problematic as its agrarian alternatives. In some places, the history of the small family farm is intimately bound up with colonialism, but small family farms are not intrinsically a colonial concept – an idea that would come as a surprise to many small family farmers throughout history in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania and the Americas operating outside of colonial contexts, or running small family farms within them precisely as a positive and creative response to colonial oppressions.
3. Entrepreneurialism cannot be the bedrock of a just and renewable agrarian economy. Ted Trainer writes:
“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”.
If that’s the impression people take from my book, then I’ve failed badly to convey my true thoughts – but I like to think that an attentive read of Chapter 14 should give the reader pretty much the opposite impression to the one Ted connotes, one that’s actually pretty similar to his own. As I see it, the bedrock of any just and renewable agrarian economy has to be the ability and the wherewithal to produce a congenial livelihood primarily for oneself or one’s household, and secondarily for one’s community from renewable and primarily local resources, not so much in cash but in the necessities of life, in food, in fibre and in shelter. To do so requires limiting the play of entrepreneurialism and the flow of capital, though perhaps not snuffing them out entirely.
Sarah Mock, on the other hand, endorses the market entrepreneurialism of new agrarian pioneers working under cooperative and collective arrangements where they “identify market opportunities” and work with “financiers to meet the needs of their customers as well as their partners and employees”. The problem with this is that they thereby submit themselves to precisely the same forces of capitalist rationalization that bear down on the small commercial family farmer. So whereas Mock implicitly brackets small family farmers with large-scale commercial operators and invokes commercial cooperative farming as a viable alternative, the truth is that all three are in the same boat when they operate commercially in generalized commodity markets. A few small family farmers and co-ops might survive in this situation – usually by increasing in size, cutting labour inputs and mechanizing, just as the corporates do – but the real dividing line is between commodity market operators of any kind and farms of any kind that are serving their own or heavily delimited local needs.
As far as I’ve been able to tell from a distance, this failing of the commercialized cooperative seems to have pretty much been the fate of Chris Newman’s Sylvanaqua Farm model – a fate that I predicted here, analyzed further here and that Mock herself critiqued in some detail here. It therefore surprises me that she doesn’t reflect a bit more critically on the difficulties of commercial cooperative farming in her present piece (incidentally, the Sylvanaqua commercial co-op was one of the models Heffron and Heron championed as a superior alternative to the small family farm).
Mock traces her enthusiasm for cooperative models to the pioneering efforts of people of colour in the USA, who “have proven that alternative farming systems are viable even when they’re not favored”. For his part, Trainer imputes the ills of the present world to “12,000 years of conditioning to prioritise individualism, competitiveness and aggressive wealth acquisition”. I think a more nuanced reading is required in both cases, as I try to outline under the next two points.
4. People of colour have proven that alternative farming systems are viable even when they’re not favored, but have not particularly proven or sought to prove that collective farming systems are superior. People who are subjected to discrimination and enforced poverty have little opportunity to improve their situation except by pooling their skills and what few resources they command – in this sense, I agree with Mock that people of colour in the USA historically have proven the viability of alternative and unfavoured farming systems. In a very different historical situation, Col Gordon makes a similar point about collective forms of subsistence cattle farming in the premodern Scottish Highlands. But in agrarian situations involving less extreme discrimination and impoverishment people typically develop systems that mix cooperative and private/household production, which each have their pros and cons. Such mixed collective/private systems have also been both an aspiration and an achievement of black farmers in the USA. Almost every enduring agrarian society involving collective property also involves private property. So it would be a good idea to stop talking about them as if they’re incompatible, and to home in a little more carefully on the nature of the different property regimes involved – something I’ll elucidate in upcoming essays here.
5. Capitalist societies do not prioritise individualism or competitiveness. Ted’s “12,000 years” reference is presumably to the conventionally reckoned dawn of agriculture, but for now I’m just going to refer to modern capitalism, which is often described as individualistic, competitive and accumulative. I agree with the accumulative bit, and I agree that in a certain sense modern capitalist societies could be described as individualistic and competitive. But this is also quite misleading. Take a walk around one of the city blocks where most people in the rich countries live these days. Look at people’s dwellings – those tiny spaces, those vast sinks of energy, water, food and resources from elsewhere. The people living in them could barely survive a week without relying on a huge network of other people to service them – there’s nothing ‘individualistic’ about them, apart from the fact that their occupants often feel lonely and crave more human companionship, which is ‘individualistic’ only in a rather special sense. And most of these people work for huge corporations or public bodies whose modus operandi generally involves eliminating competition, not encouraging it.
6. Many people seek autonomy and a sense of personal, practical competence within a wider community, of the kind that’s possible in a small farm society. Ted Trainer argues that in the future people will need to develop new forms of local cooperation. I agree, although in many ways they will be reinventions of older forms of local cooperation. But in view of the highly collective nature of contemporary capitalist societies just mentioned, I don’t think it will necessarily be so hard to do this.
I think the hardest thing to develop in the small farm societies succeeding our present urban-capitalist ones won’t be the collectivism but the individualism – the jack-of-all-trades practical competence, the sense of making do without being able to call in expert help or cheap, pre-manufactured solutions, the autonomy of everyday decision-making on the farm.
Sometimes, this agrarian individualism gets associated with right-wing attitudes that wrongly scorn the inability of poor people to help themselves (on which, see point 4 above). Yet those who live in low-energy small farm societies know that they absolutely rely on a wider community to prosper. In such societies, there’s a creative tension between individualism, autonomy and personal competence on the one hand and community support and integration on the other. It’s the very lack of individualism in modern capitalist society – our inability to deliver the basic self-care of producing food, clothes and shelter – that many people find so alienating, and that draws them to the ‘romance’ of the small farm. But re-creating that individualism and practical competence isn’t easy.
7. Commons are specific, and delimited. The typical form of collectivism in low-energy small farm societies is a commons – common grazing, common irrigation strategies, common woodland management and the like. I’ll say more about this in another post, but usually commons are specific to particular people and activities and form a relatively small and delimited though important part of day-to-day economic life in low-energy societies. Modern activists have got into very generalized ways of talking about commons – ‘the digital commons’, ‘the atmospheric commons’, even ‘the global commons’ – which may have tactical payoffs but are also quite misleading. There’s often a lot of work involved in low-energy, local societies when people of equal standing and no hierarchical authority structure come together to thrash out collective agreements. So they try to avoid it unless the alternatives are obviously worse.
Also, the specific character of the common resource is important. In a low capital/energy society, it makes little sense for people to graze cattle individually – but it may make sense for them to milk cattle, or make hay, or grow vegetables or cereals individually, and this is often what happens. So when Col Gordon contrasts the early commons-based subsistence cattle economy of the Scottish Highlands with a later private mixed farming economy in the area he’s not really comparing like with like. He nicely shows in his podcasts that the colonization of the premodern Highland pastoral economy by Scottish and English interests themselves resting on a wider colonial project were instrumental in creating a mixed farming economy based on private ownership. This is not the same as showing that the private character of mixed farm tenure is itself a colonial concept.
8. Humans are not ants, and status contests are a real thing in every human society. Here I come to probably my main point of disagreement with Ted Trainer. If I understand him rightly, he thinks a new cooperative human culture without status contests must be created to generate renewable local societies (so do Heffron and Heron). I don’t think this is feasible, though fortunately I don’t think it’s necessary either – but I do agree that cooperation must be emphasized and status contests limited.
One dimension of this that I won’t say much about here is gender relations and patriarchy. Bizarrely, Heffron and Heron characterize my arguments as ‘patriarchal’, whereas every other reviewer who’s commented on this has correctly seen them as anti-patriarchal. Ted considers the whole issue a red herring, because he thinks future cooperative societies will be intrinsically gender equal. I find this a bit complacent, but I hope he’s right that the gains of modern feminism will be sustained and amplified through the troubles to come. However, I don’t think it’ll happen by default, so I make no apologies for making an issue of it in my book.
Leaving gender aside, I do want to make some further remarks about more general tendencies towards status differentiation in human interactions. People have a fine-honed tendency to try to get one over other people, and to try to make themselves the big man (or woman – but usually man) who gathers camp followers around them. It’s kind of ironic that one of the most prominent schools of thought nowadays that seeks to refute this as a basis of social action comprises people who seem happy to call themselves ‘Marxists’. People play the holier than thou game in all sorts of unexpected arenas of human interaction – for example, in claims to being a proper farmer, a real permaculturist or to being especially masterful at mindfully letting go of petty human concerns. I discuss this in Chapter 16 of my book and will come back to it in a future post.
But people also have a fine-honed tendency to try to take others down a peg or two and to contest claims of superior status. In his book Hierarchy in the Forest the anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues there are evolutionary reasons for this hierarchy-equality dualism that stretch into humanity’s deep past. Whether he’s right or not there’s a mountain of evidence from numerous societies spanning human history that people are forever playing games of status aggrandizement and status levelling (including, of course, evidence from modern communist societies).
Ted writes that “Hunter gatherer societies have mechanisms which prevent the emergence of inequality and greedy tyrants”, which is exactly right, but I think this supports my position better than his. These societies need to contrive explicit mechanisms to prevent status differentiation, precisely because humans, while intrinsically social, are not intrinsically collectivist – and hunter gatherer peoples are keenly aware of the problems that arise if they don’t take active steps to stop would-be big men from taking hold. Truly collectivist species – ants, for example – have no need to invent mechanisms that keep their individual members in line.
When I was on a panel a while back with a prominent US farmer involved in a cooperative farm, I asked her if she’d learned any lessons about how to run such a cooperative enterprise successfully. As I recall, she pulled a face and said something along the lines that the more people you work with, the more arguments and obstacles you face. As someone who’s a member of various co-ops myself, I recognized the pain in her face, though I also recognize that co-ops can still be a good idea. She imputed the problems to the selfishness of the modern capitalist societies we live in, but for the reasons I’ve mentioned above I think it goes a lot deeper than that.
So, in summary, I disagree with Ted that selfishness, self-aggrandizement and status conflict won’t be problems in renewable future societies. They’re a problem in every human society. But on the upside, as his example of hunter gatherer societies suggests, this isn’t necessarily an insurmountable problem in creating functional egalitarian societies. Indeed, clever societies find ways to make use of people’s status-climbing energies while preventing them from becoming destructive.
Nevertheless, status conflict does need careful attention and management. Cooperatives whose members claim to get along perfectly with no need for conflict resolution are usually riven with implicit tensions that quickly tear them apart – often enough even ones that claim to be based on the collectivist wisdom of older or non-capitalist societies. I think there’s a wider lesson there for the cooperative societies of the future.
9. We need to talk about ‘the family’ part of ‘the small family farm’. I’m not going to do it here, because this essay is long enough already and because to some extent I’ve already done it here and here. But, as with status contest, there’s a need to acknowledge that family relationships are and will likely continue to be a critical part of life, and wise societies try to make the best of their positives while mitigating their negatives.
I think there’s a failure of left-wing or ‘progressive’ thought on this issue that allows the right to run riot with the concept of the family. Many people on the left that I know devote enormous attention to parental, sibling and spousal relationships in their personal lives and yet are scornful of family relationships in their writing and politics.
In his A People’s Green New Deal Max Ajl calls for agrarian reform to break large farms “into units which can be tended by families using agroecological methods, or lassoed into cooperatives”, and again talks elsewhere of the need for small plots workable by “non-patriarchal familial units or organized in cooperatives” (p.117 and p.144). He doesn’t expand on these sensible suggestions (and Kai Heron doesn’t press him on them in his interview with Max, despite the strictures against family farming he expresses in his critique of me). Fair enough, maybe – but it does leave some questions open about the shape of family farming in the futures they envisage. Ultimately, analysis of the ‘family’ part of the ‘small family farm’ is necessary, because it’s not going to go away.
10. We also need to talk about states and publics. Again, I won’t say much about this here for brevity and because I’ll be writing about it in future essays. But just briefly, Ted says that I suggest certain problems might “have to be dealt with by “public” means, without detailing how”. This seems a bit harsh, given that I devote some attention in my book to the concept of the public sphere, to civic republican politics and to the concept of the supersedure state. Ted himself talks of “formal arrangements for dealing with problems individually or publicly” – also without detailing how! Regarding Heffron and Heron, he writes that they “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.”
Heffron has certainly advocated for the nationalisation of landownership, so that sounds about right. Personally, I’m not so keen to hand Boris Johnson the keys to my farm, but I doubt Heffron really favours that either. The way Marxist theories of the state generally get around this is to imagine that a working-class revolution will occur in which the state becomes the servant of an uncorrupted people’s will. Right-wing or cultural nationalists also think the state serves an uncorrupted people’s will, but of a different kind and genesis. Ted seems to think something similar, albeit again with a different framing.
I don’t share this viewpoint, and I’m extremely wary of any approach to the state that sees it as a positive manifestation of some unfolding political good. As I see it, supervening political authority is a contrivance and an unfortunate necessity that’s always likely to fail in various potentially unpleasant ways. But it’s not inevitably fated to fail everywhere and at all times. On that slim possibility, I hang my hopes. Such hopes, however, can only ever be realised in practice, by people figuring out the politics in the lived reality of their daily lives. They can’t be written down as a blueprint in a book. In that sense, I could never “detail how” republics can sort out political problems, however many words I’m allowed. Therefore I can’t honestly apologise for not trying.