This is the last in a somewhat interrupted series of posts about property rights in small farm futures and small farm pasts, which started here, looked at the idea of work and self-ownership here, considered private property here and common property here. The missing piece in terms of standard definitions of property ownership is public or state ownership.

So here I’m going to address public ownership to complete this part of the blog cycle. But I’m not going to say much about the forms of state ownership emanating from national, federal or local government familiar from everyday modern politics. For one thing, the issues involved in those have been endlessly rehashed in standard political positions concerning the pros and cons of (big) government, and I have little to add to all that. More importantly, I don’t think this modern politics is going to survive in anything much like its familiar present forms as the various challenges of our present and future world begin to bite.

That prompts questions about what state power and public ownership might look like in the future viewed from the centres out – from London or Washington DC, New York or New Delhi, Beijing, Mumbai, Edinburgh, Juba, Dublin, Belfast, Brussels, Los Angeles, Sacramento and so on. But it also prompts questions about what political power and public ownership might look like in the more rural peripheries of these power centres.

My view, which could of course turn out to be wrong, is that the de facto power of the centres to organize life in these peripheries will wane, that more people will be living in many of these peripheries than they presently do, and that it’s in these peripheries that the most important and interesting political and economic innovations of the world to come will occur. So here I’m going to talk primarily about some aspects of ‘public ownership’ around the rural edges of nation-states with waning centralized power. I’ll say more about that waning centralized power in a future post or two.

In thinking about life outside centralized power an easy place to go to is a dystopian sense of ‘anarchy’ in the popular sense of the term – ‘no rule’ is a world of arbitrary violence, might is right and men with guns who will steal your farm or worse, prompting a kind of frontier prepping mentality where the men with guns can be countered only by a gun of your own.

But the men with guns can’t be everywhere all of the time. So maybe what’s more to the point about this anarchic situation is the pervasive potential for violence. This was a point made by early modern English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679):

For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known …. So the nature of Warre, consisteth not in actual fighting ; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE

So ‘warre’ in Hobbes’s archaic spelling isn’t quite the same as ‘war’ understood as those hot moments of actual violence – it is not ‘Battell onely’, but a kind of society in which people accept that the ultimate arbiter is their own and everyone else’s free recourse to force.

In Hobbes’s view – and I suspect most other people’s too – this kind of society is none too pleasant to live in. Constantly watching your back, with poor prospects however big your gun or skilled your gunmanship in view of the pervasiveness of violence, and with no incentives to work with others to build more expansive institutional structures, life in such a society, Hobbes famously wrote, is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short”.

People often project this characterization of what Hobbes called ‘the state of nature’ backwards as if he were a historian or anthropologist trying to discern the original human condition. But I think it’s more useful to see the state of nature as a thought experiment, albeit one informed by the events of the English Civil War that was raging as Hobbes wrote. Hobbes addressed himself to the nature of government and how people create political authority at a time when older ideas about divine or royal authority were breaking down and our modern secular age was emerging. To avoid the horrors of the state of nature, Hobbes argued that it was necessary for everyone to give up their free recourse to violence in ‘mutual surrender’ to a ruler, Leviathan, a great centralized authority, who would underwrite the conditions for a peaceful and prosperous civil society. Hence the modern secular idea of the state as a contrivance to keep the peace.

Hobbes offered a dismal choice, then – either war (or at least warre) in the state of nature, or subservience to big government and its excesses. But are the options really that stark? Are there no forms of society that mediate between the state of nature and Leviathan?

Well yes, there are. For starters, there have been the many ‘stateless’, indigenous or what were once called ‘primitive’ societies through history where there was no Leviathan but where people lived for the most part in a state of peace more than warre. The way they achieved this, as argued among others by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in a classic essay on which I’m leaning heavily in this post, was typically through so-called ‘gift’ relations – more or less formalized exchanges of things or people that built social relationships, and effectively built society. These societies were the original anarchist societies in the more positive and political sense of that term – the gift creates peace and circumvents warre from the grassroots, from the bottom up, without any need for top-down rule from the mighty apparatus of the state.

Some people nowadays riff a bit too dreamily for my taste on the nature of such gift societies as an alternative to the brutal calculus of the capitalist marketplace. The very word ‘gift’ brings to mind an enchanting vision of society as something like a giant birthday party or some festive occasion of generous goodwill writ large. But that’s not really how gift societies work, and they can involve their own brutalities. Who you give to, who you receive from and who you host can sublimate, only ever partially, all sorts of possible tensions and hostilities (in this connection perhaps it’s worth noting the shared etymology of words like host (as benefactor), host (as army), hospitable, hostel and hostile). Gift societies might even involve marketplaces and money, or at least resemble them in various respects.

I’ll get into such details later in this blog cycle. But the point remains that these societies have figured out how to avoid the worst consequences of warre without the guiding hand of a centralized state, and this could light a useful path into a future where people might have to do this over again.

I don’t see the use of trying to specify on paper ahead of time exactly how they should go about it, because the details will depend on any number of specific historical and local circumstances. In A Small Farm Future I described some generalities of how contemporary and future post-capitalist societies might confront this issue with reference to the idea of the public sphere, a kind of political playing field where the game of politics is decided by fair rules of argument available to all, and also with reference to civic republican politics, which I’ve discussed in previous posts but will reprise a little in a moment.

Two criticisms have come my way about how I’ve framed this issue. The first from the Marxist perspective of Alex Heffron and Kai Heron, who think my recourse to the idea of the public sphere is a deus ex machina – a ghost in the machine or a kind of get out of jail free card that I invoke whenever my argument runs into trouble. They also describe it as “a painfully naïve, liberal understanding of rights and debate ”.

The second criticism came from Sean Domencic while engaging with a separate but related point I made in a blog comment. Sean also focused on the implicit liberalism of my stance on the public sphere, which he sees as contradicting a republican emphasis on civic virtue. Apologies, by the way, if this all seems an excessively abstract response to the sharper reality with which I began concerning men with guns taking your farm. I’ll try to ground things back in that reality before I’m done.

But first to the criticisms. I think Heffron and Heron’s miss their target. If I’d argued that a public sphere always just naturally arises to overcome political conflict, then the objection that it’s a get out of jail deus ex machina might hold. But I don’t. In fact, I make a more Hobbesian argument: the public sphere is a contrivance that people have to work hard to construct, with no guarantee of success, but does hold some attractions if they pull it off.

A better candidate for a deus ex machina in my opinion is Heron and Heffron’s own approach, with its view that in the fight of oppressed people against the circumstances of their oppression lies an intrinsic process of general human ennoblement that will create political and ecological redemption. They write, “As Marxists we believe that we must look for the contours of an eco-communist future in struggles against the capitalist present”. To me, this seems like a better candidate for a deus ex machina, and one that fails to appreciate how the concerns of the capitalist and anti-capitalist present will be transformed unrecognizably or extinguished altogether by social and environmental forces now in play.

Perhaps there’s more meat to the charges of liberalism laid against me. Few people these days, including me, have many good things to say about liberalism, but I’m willing to stick up to some extent for a liberal political framework that makes space for open political debate. Certainly if confronted with Marxist intellectuals drawing salaries from public universities while freely heralding the violent revolutionary overthrow of the status quo by a working class they view as inherently redemptive, I’d prefer a liberal politics that, however ineffectually, engages the plurality of political views, rather than opting for a totalitarian political sphere in which only a single version of class consciousness gets the floor.

Still, I accept there are problems with liberalism, and I think Sean puts his finger on some of them. You can’t just keep arguing about politics as if the only thing that really matters is the argument itself. Ultimately you need to make political choices about how to live life in common with your fellow citizens, and then implement them. The choices that are made might not suit everybody, but that’s not necessarily a deal breaker unless you espouse a strong individualism of the kind associated with liberal and libertarian politics where collective political choices or goods can never trump individual rights.

In his critique, Sean was speaking up for collective political goods against my comment that “I basically see collective political institutions as contrivances, necessary evils to which people must surrender some of their own ‘sacred’ self-sovereignty”. Although there are some wider contexts for that comment, I accept Sean’s criticism and I’ll happily row back from the strong individualism implied in it. But I do want to mention a couple of the contexts for it and press their importance.

Sean will hopefully correct me if I’m wrong but I think we’re both broadly signed up to a civic republicanism in which the citizens of a polity come together to define its common goods by which they will live. I’ve come to this position quite late in my political life and there’s much in the tradition that’s unfamiliar to me, so I beg forgiveness for my probably patchy thinking about it which I hope to correct in the future.

Anyway, a major problem with civic republicanism as I see it is the danger that it curdles into a tyranny of the majority, especially one aimed against less politically empowered social groups (Heffron and Heron missed this aspect of my approach, but it’s possible to find a place for class in a political analysis without making it the sole driving force or the centrepiece). To prevent the tyranny of the majority, I think it’s necessary to have a strong politics of recognition of individuals and potentially of sub-groups (subsidiary republics?) as ends in themselves. It’s easy to slip into the language of individualism in defending this, as perhaps I did, but it’s not quite the same thing.

Another context is the notion of the polity as a contrivance and a necessary evil. I think I was unwise to introduce the notion of ‘evil’ into the discussion, even ‘necessary evil’, because really I don’t think contrivance or acceptance of trade-off is evil in any respect, and certainly no more so than the notion that there’s some pure and ideal form of political community to aim at. In fact, rather less. Possibly where Sean and I may continue to disagree is on how ‘contrived’ republics really are. He has a nuanced, expansive and generous conception of politics grounded in virtue ethics and natural law. I need to educate myself further in this tradition. I’m sympathetic to it, but I think I may find that ultimately it settles on a slightly too naturalistic or ‘given’ idea of political community for my taste, whereas I might prefer to keep the contrivance of it more centre stage.

Let’s now start a slow descent from this high level of abstraction back towards the men with guns.

Thomas Hobbes lacked faith in bottom-up political community-making. Although the term wasn’t used in his day, he feared anarchy (i.e. ‘warre’) and distrusted anarchism as a means to prevent it. I don’t like his solution of a mighty state, and I hold out greater hopes for bottom-up politics than him. But I don’t think these politics are easy and I’m unpersuaded by most of the off the peg versions of bottom-up politics available to us today, such as libertarianism, Marxism and communitarianism.

To me, the libertarian emphasis on individual rights is basically just warre. It’s a warre that may not lead immediately to war if enough people can be repressed or bought off, but it’ll probably go that way in the end. Much the same can be said of liberalism. The Marxist idea that the oppressed will rise up and overthrow the centralized state, repurposing it for general human benefit, has a better track record than many of its detractors think, but still one that could at best be called patchy and at worst murderously tyrannical, which is surely not surprising in view of its totalizing class idealism. Communitarian doctrines that make a special case for some kind of pre-existing ‘natural’ community as the proper basis for politics risk a class idealism of a different sort, but one that runs similar risks.

For me the best candidate is a civic republicanism lifting itself from a state of warre by self-consciously building some common ground for its citizens to stand on. So the most important thing to do is to try to build the public sphere that will make our republics appealing to us and their other citizens (‘other citizens’ most likely being people who relate to us essentially for random reasons of geographical location rather than some natural affinity).

This is a long-term project which may not work out, and where the individual steps are uncertain. I see the challenge as creating a gift society that interpolates between warre and the dubious peace of Hobbes’s Leviathan. I have some ideas about how to do that grounded (naturally!) in small-scale, self-reliant farming. I’ll outline it further in future posts, but essentially I foresee a situation of liberal-urban-capitalist collapse due to a combination of climatic, energy, biotic, economic and political factors, prompting small farm futures grounded in the mix of private and common property I mentioned in previous posts, along with some public property, but most importantly with a public sphere in which the common life necessary to a sustainable small farm future is determined. I have to admit that my ideas on this issue amount to something less than a fully specified political manifesto. Though that seems no barrier to getting elected these days.

So – if men with guns come to take your farm, then it’s probably too late for you to do much about it, even if you have a gun of your own and fancy you can handle yourself. Therefore it’s as well to reflect about how best to stop them coming long beforehand, which involves some knowledge of what’s on their minds.

Possibly they’re bandits and you’re simply out of luck, a happenstance that’s common enough even in our present liberal-capitalist bureaucratic world, though mostly in places distant from its wealthy centres. But maybe the men with guns are soldiers from a distant government, or revolutionary guerillas, or a local militia for whom your face doesn’t fit. In all these cases, there’s a chance that the men with guns won’t come to take your farm, because you’re part of an engaged citizenry that has your back. And this in turn is because the citizenry has defined its common goods, worked out its relations of ownership, debt, gift and obligation, and defined its public sphere carefully over the long term. This, in an admittedly very general sense, is what I mean by ‘public ownership’ in a small farm future.

Hobbes wrote that “covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all”. So maybe my argument amounts to no more than countering the men with guns through other men with other guns (or swords). Or maybe it’s an invitation to look more closely at the nature of our covenants to see if we can formulate them in ways more likely to keep the guns in their cabinets. Something to discuss, perhaps.

If the men with guns are from the government, you’ll stand little chance against them at present if they want to make an issue of things. In the future, the odds may be a bit more balanced. The only people in the wealthy countries I’m aware of currently who are really acting out this idea of hostile engagement with government forces in service of a more authentic political community seem to be far right militia types in the USA. Hopefully it’s redundant for me to distinguish myself from their cause. Examples like the Mexican Zapatistas or the Kurdistan Communities Union might furnish more inspiring models. Anyway, as governments wrestle with the increasingly impossible predicaments of our times, it seems to me likely that this space of publics versus governments will become a lot more politically diverse. And that’s the point at which the question of ‘public ownership’ becomes a really live issue.