This post addresses some questions of household, family and gender relations in a small farm future. I wrote about this in Chapter 12 of my book, and also in this article and this post. But there are some things I’d like to add – partly a few new thoughts, and partly by way of response to points made earlier that I wasn’t able to respond to at the time. So, a brief reprise and reformulation before I move onto other things.

As I see it, for reasons much aired on this website over the years, there will probably be a resurgence of small-scale, household-based farming in the future, and many – but by no means all – of those households are going to be peopled mainly or exclusively by an adult woman, an adult man, and their children. This is not some ethical ideal that I’m advancing as an exemplary model for how farm households ought to be arranged. On the contrary, I hope there will be many different styles and sizes of household. It’s just that I think the structure I mentioned is likely to be quite common in the future, as it has been in the past, unless a lot of political effort is devoted to preventing it – which I doubt will happen, and in my view probably wouldn’t be a good use of precious social resources. Possibly, this structure will seem to offer certain advantages for some of those involved, but it risks disadvantages for others.

One of the disadvantages I’ve feared is that a household farming future of this kind will disproportionately benefit men and disbenefit women. Therefore, I wrote Chapter 12 of my book to address that issue. It was one of the harder chapters to write (and one of the harder ones to cut editorially), and it’s one of the chapters I’m least satisfied with. Happily, all the reviews of the book I’ve seen bar one correctly appreciated that it was a good faith attempt to advance an anti-patriarchal position around family farming.

But, as I see things now, I fear I may have fallen into a so-called framing trap with that chapter, where I too easily accepted key premises of views I don’t share – specifically, that small-scale, family farming is intrinsically patriarchal and that the royal route to gender equality lies in urbanization, modernization and the escape of (female) labour from land-based work.

This is certainly a widely held view. One participant at a discussion I was involved in said bluntly that “small farms are bad for women”. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I put the point to Vandana Shiva when I interviewed her on The Stoa, and she took the alternative view that there are sources of social support for rural women that make them less vulnerable to patriarchal control and violence than their poor urban counterparts.

I also quizzed my friend Saurav Roy on the point, and he wrote this interesting reply (lightly edited by me), which I’ll return to in a later post:

“When I was working in slums in Calcutta, mostly the migrants were coming from Sundarbans because either their crops were failing or fish were dying because salty water would enter their ponds. They would share with me that they came to earn money in Calcutta because the flooding and soil erosion have increased in the last five years, making it difficult for them to farm anything. Moving to a city is not a choice they prefer, as it requires leaving their family behind and the conditions in the city are far less dignified than in the village. That was my first experience of witnessing climate migration before I even read a book about climate migration.

I was doing surveys in these slums to understand their energy needs, kerosene dependency and household earnings. For that, the women would know more than the men, so I would naturally speak to the women. Show up every two weeks to say hi and update surveys. I became more trusted and then women, especially the newly married ones, would say they feel less secure in the slums as there are more experiences of getting groped, molested or raped. As police are not of any help in these neighbourhoods (because people are living there illegally) they can’t really report anything. So the women have to protect themselves, have a man in the house after dark, or especially feel vulnerable when they want to use the toilet. These slum houses rarely have proper doors, so if any drunk person wants to enter at night they could”

Then Saurav cited some evidence hinting at better security (and better nutrition) for rural women in India. Other writers like Manali Desai have emphasized the greater danger of sexual violence against low caste women in rural areas. I guess it’s always hard to generalize, especially in a country comprising nearly 20% of the world’s population. So it’s complicated, but on the face of it I’m not seeing an awful lot of evidence to suggest that rural residence and agrarian lifeways are always the worst option for women (which is just as well, because I think there are going to be increasingly few other options for women, and for men too, in the future).

To generalize yet further, the way I now see things is that patriarchy is a permanent possibility in every kind of society, and it bears little necessary relation to the kind of place people live, the kind of work they do and maybe the exact composition of their households. So I no longer feel a need to defend societies built on small-scale family farming from the specific charge of patriarchy, which is not of course the same as saying that patriarchy is not an issue in such societies. The work of historians like Robert Allen and Emma Griffin has shown that conditions for women in England worsened with the early modern onset of more commercialized farming and subsequently with industrialization, and similar findings have been presented in other parts of the world. Along with their contrary. Again, it’s complicated.

In The Dawn of Everything (which I reviewed here), David Graeber and David Wengrow suggest that “the most brutal forms of exploitation have their origins in the most intimate of social relations: as perversions of nurture, love and caring” (p.208). They use this to analyze exploitation at different social levels, including patriarchal family forms, domestic slavery and forms of political tyranny. If they’re right, then it follows that ending these forms of exploitation must involve redressing the ‘perversions’ they invoke, rather than assuming there’s some particular form or level of social organization such as ‘the family’ where the blame lies.

So what are the perversions? When I wrote my chapter, I was thinking of societies organized around corporate kinship groups such as clans and lineages, where it seems to me the chances of creating patriarchal structures are high – women, and women’s sexuality or ‘honour’, being a group possession that it jealously guards. For that reason, I felt that in societies organized around less ramifying kin structures – nuclear families, say – the risks would be lower. And, reading Graeber and Wengrow’s book, I found it remarkable how many of the archaeological sites they described worldwide across the span of human history, most particularly those they championed as versions of republican autonomy, involved small domestic hearths of the kind that could only accommodate a small group of people of nuclear family type proportions.

Remarkable though that seemed, as I mentioned in my review it wasn’t something Graeber and Wengrow actually remarked on. I can’t help feeling there’s something of a conspiracy of silence around kinship and family forms in the contemporary social sciences, alongside a queasiness in even talking about it in progressive and left-wing circles that leaves the field wide open for the political right to forge what it will out of the concept of ‘the family’.

Whereas kinship studies were once central to anthropology, perhaps too central, they now seem to me too peripheral, to the extent that it’s barely possible to formulate questions about the structuring of kin and gender relations in different kinds of societies at all. A lot of the more recent scholarship on the topic asks instead how we even come to conceive that ideas like gender or family have any meaning at all – which is fair enough, although you can say the same about any form of social identity, including class. Generally, this recent scholarship operates at a level of highfalutin philosophical abstraction that I suspect is quite bamboozling to most ordinary folk, though perhaps some of the ideas find more everyday expression in current controversies about trans identities and rights.

Meanwhile, radical writers tiptoe around the issue. In his stimulating book, A People’s Green New Deal, for example, Max Ajl argues for agrarian reforms that “shatter large capitalist plots into smaller ones workable by non-patriarchal familial units or organized in cooperatives” (p.117) and “break huge farms into units that can be tended by families using agroecological methods, or lassoed into cooperatives” (p.144). No quarrel from me there, but Max doesn’t expand on what form these family units might take and how they would relate to wider society. This is probably a wise move to avoid political trouble, but it risks evading issues that ultimately must be confronted.

While I’ve been entertaining notions of restricted family units and restricted proprietorship as a way to overcome the ‘perversions’ of modern patriarchy and power, I think it would be fair to say that a lot of leftwing thought runs in the opposite direction, holding both nuclear family structures and notions of private property, even in the form of distributed petty proprietorship, in special contempt for many modern ills. This was firmly asserted by an online commenter recently who took umbrage at my view that small, family-based households are quite common historically.

The classic text here, and the one my commenter invoked, is Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, first published in 1884. I have a copy on my bookshelf, which I bought exactly a century later when I was an undergraduate anthropology student. A good deal of Engels’ evidence was culled from the 1877 book Ancient Society by pioneering US anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, with its speculative and now outmoded conception of an original human matriarchy, and its oh-so-Victorian stage theory of human development from ‘savagery’, through ‘barbarism’ and onwards to ‘civilization’.

My commenter asked me if I’d read Engels’ book. A long time ago, I confessed – don’t remember much about it. I took it down from my shelf and weighed it in my hands, pondering whether to reread it. Then I put it back. Screw it – Morgan’s and Engels’ books broke fresh ground in their day, but the fact that radicals are still taking their cue from them nearly 150 years later surely suggests a problem. Things have moved on, I said to myself – and to my commenter. But judging by the apparently parlous state of kinship studies these days, maybe they haven’t. Certainly, the ghosts of Morgan and Engels still stalk social media and liberal dinner party talk about the evils of family and property, while critical scholarship seems to have vacated the scene. It’s the power, the resistance to critique, of exactly these kinds of “as everybody knows and as so-and-so showed long ago” shibboleths that I think always require challenging, and that Graeber and Wengrow’s book helps us to challenge, even if the hot potato of family structures is one they somewhat ducked themselves.

The real source of radical ire is, I think, not so much the nuclear family as a particular version of it all too evident in the Victorian England of Engels’ day. Father as distant patriarch and breadwinner, abroad in the public sphere outside the home. Mother as his subordinate and financial dependent, confined to a somewhat empty domesticity. Children to be inculcated with these virtues through patriarchal discipline. Much policing of boundaries, status aspiration and male sexual hypocrisy.

I have no problem joining the philippics against this kind of family norm, but it’s not so much a depiction of ‘the nuclear family’ as a highly specific version of it, or what might alternatively be glossed ‘the bourgeois family’. Inevitably, a large part of the feminist response to that Victorian modernist reality had to involve women unseating the family patriarch by creating extra-domestic autonomy for themselves, in the workplace, in accessing money and wealth independently, in the public sphere, in female self-actualization. In other words, by connecting themselves and their households to a wider world of material and conceptual possibilities.

On that point at least I agree with my online commenter in his strictures against what he called, shifting the goalposts when I defended small family units as a ubiquitous historical reality, ‘the insular nuclear family’. Well, I’m definitely against insularity. But the issue I tried to raise in my book is that many of the options available to Victorian feminists and their successors for breaking down insular boundaries may be less available in a small farm future, and people – women and men – will be more tied to a household economy. That household economy isn’t inevitably patriarchal, but the resources for contesting its tendencies to patriarchy may have to be different from the ones that drove the feminism of industrial modernity.

Nevertheless, I’m unconvinced that the gains of modern feminism would simply be lost in a small farm future characterized by many restricted-family farm households, nor that the forms of exploitation arising from ‘perversions’ of intimate relations that Graeber and Wengrow invoke would vanish with other kinds of households. What seems to me more important to safeguard against exploitation is rich connection of people and their households to wider social networks. I see this taking a civic republican form, which I will explore in future posts.

At the same time, it mightn’t be a bad idea to revive questions about gender, kinship structure and the forms of household production now unfashionable in the social sciences to ponder how such connections might operate. Consider, for example, the old anthropological nostrum that land-intensive horticultural societies often involve matrilineal inheritance and descent (i.e. children inherit property only/mainly from their mother and maternal line – not to be confused with ‘matriarchy’), whereas land-extensive mobile herding societies often involve patrilineal descent (not to be confused with patriarchy, although in fact the two often go together, as in all those livestock-herding Old Testament patriarchs).

The logic is that it can be hard to be certain who a child’s father is, so in labour-intensive situations with relatively high pressure on land where lineal inheritance matters to people, as one might find in predominantly horticultural societies, there’s something to be said for pragmatically making descent matrilineal. The land extensive situation of herding, on the other hand, involves militarized policing of uncertain boundaries and the fusion and fission of groups according to political and ecological circumstances, lending itself to masculinist and patrilineal ‘bands of brothers’ and rigorous (patriarchal) control over female sexuality.

I did come across a moderately recent research paper arguing somewhat along these lines from a sociobiological perspective concerning the incentives for parental investment in biological offspring. But I’m not sure it’s necessary to invoke evolutionary genetics. Simply the belief that children inherit material substance of social importance from both parents is probably enough.

Anyway, commenters here at Small Farm Future seem willing to boldly go where modern scholarship fears to tread, so I was interested when Joe Clarkson wrote here a while ago here on this very theme:

I have lived in a village where … the many children who didn’t live with their mother usually lived with grandparents or some other biological kin. In this village the culture around gender was pretty conventional except that, due to widespread promiscuity, land tenure was matrilineal. There was little concern about who the actual father of any child might be as it was often impossible to know. Other aspects of land control and chiefly hierarchy were patriarchal.

Given that the small farm future I project is likely to be a labour-abundant, land scarce horticultural one, perhaps there’s a case for shifting towards matrilineal descent? As Joe’s comment indicates, matriliny isn’t entirely a defence against patriarchy, but it may mitigate the worst tendencies towards control of female sexuality.

An interesting question is how quickly kinship systems might change to fit new circumstances. When could we expect to see a matrilineal small farm future taking shape? Alternatively, perhaps people would opt for a more relaxed approach. After all, sex and marriage aren’t the same thing. Maybe a judicious mix of honesty with spouses and sexual partners, good contraception, and/or relative indifference to the importance of biological descent in labour-intensive horticultural societies of the future might be enough to preserve the existing pattern of bilateral descent in more or less nuclear families typical in the Global North into a small farm future. Certainly this pattern, combined when appropriate with supra-household forms of organization such as commons, has operated effectively in many small farm pasts. Restricted bilateral families are quite a resilient social form.

Perhaps my emphasis here upon family-based productive households will be offensive to certain variants of left-wing thought, while the emphasis on a free and easy approach to sex, family styles and inheritance will offend certain right-wing ones. I’m open to debate, but I’m as yet unpersuaded of the virtues of agrarian futures which over-fetishize the family at the expense of politics or over-fetishize politics at the expense of the family. For me, in that middle ground sits the public sphere of civic republican politics.

Anyway, as I now see it there’s no inherent tendency to patriarchy in restricted family household farming models, provided the tendencies towards patriarchy in the wider society of which it’s a part are kept in check. But there are some things worth keeping an eye on. One is avoiding an excessively gendered division of labour in farm work, which may in fact be easier with the more horticultural focus of a small farm society, where there would be less need for the kind of overpowered tractive machinery that seems to draw men in like wasps to a jampot and encourage them to elaborate their metaphors of masculinity around pistons, cylinder capacities and the length of their chainsaw bars. Another is to avoid all those nationalist, militarist and masculinist ideas of defending the family or the motherland. Or, if defence is essential, to be sure it’s women’s work as well as men’s. Yet another, of course, is to maintain full female citizenship rights to inheritance, divorce, education and so on. There are precedents for all this in historic small farm societies.

But maybe there’s a joker in the pack in the form of a ‘big man’ tendency among certain males towards self-aggrandizing patriarchal dominance. In relation to Graeber and Wengrow’s thesis concerning the relationship between household care and political domination, Gunnar Rundgren, another boldly-going Small Farm Future commenter, wrote:

I am not very convinced by the argument that kingdoms are modelled on patriarchal household (family) relationships …. At risk of sounding like a socio-biologist [it’s OK, Gunnar you’re among friends here…]I find the more plausible link being between a dominating male in a band and chiefs, chiefdoms, kingdoms and ultimately empires. The dominant male is not a far-fetched figure, but he is not linked to the household unless you expand the household unit to the band or whatever social unit people were living in.

Would-be dominant men who are not linked to a household that can keep them in check, masterless men, men who are not heorđfæst or ‘hearth-fast’ in the Old English term, indeed can be something of a problem – whether in the form of pillaging men-at-arms at large in certain modern and premodern societies, or men at large on incel subreddits or worse today. My argument, though it’s far from a complete answer, is that if men as well as women are richly connected to a restricted household, which in turn is richly connected to a wider political community, then the possibilities for patriarchal domination are lessened, provided the society in general admits to some narrative of female autonomy.

So in summary: small farm societies are not necessarily bad for women, kinship is a given and can’t be wished away, but large patrilineages and masculinist metaphors of defence and protection are best avoided. Men are best connected through kinship to a caring household (so are women, but that seems to be easier to achieve), and households in turn are best connected to wider networks of social institutions. It’s possible that household care can be perverted into a logic of patriarchal domination, just as can every kind of social institution. But it’s not a given. And there are no particular ‘material’ causes of female oppression that are worsened, or lessened, by the possibility of a small farm future.