Act: Inspiration

A novelist, a journalist and an anthropologist…

August 29, 2022

My title sounds like one of those “…walk into a bar” jokes, and if anyone would care to provide a punchline I’d be delighted. But actually this post is more in the way of a placeholder, reflecting back on some previous themes and anticipating some ones to come in relation to my three titular characters.

Most importantly, the novelist in question is G.K. Chesterton – less a novelist, really, than a multimodal writer and one-man torrent of words and ideas. I invoke him as one of the founders of distributism, and I’ve just published an article in the latest issue of The Land making the case for a new distributist movement. I’d like to invite readers of this blog to take a look at the article and let me know their thoughts, particularly if they’re interested in the Distributist Congress idea contained therein.

The idea for a Congress was dreamed up in conversations with several people including Sean Domencic, a friend of this website. Sean knows a lot more about the original distributist movement forged by Chesterton and colleagues than I do, but he convinced me that my book A Small Farm Future – somewhat unwittingly on my part – in many ways charts a contemporary neo-distributist path.

Neither Sean nor I endorse all aspects of the original distributist movement and, as exemplified by our discussions on this site, he and I have a few friendly differences of our own. But we do agree that a revised distributist movement could prove an excellent umbrella under which to build alliances with disparate people and movements working towards renewable, human-scale cultures and agricultures. So I want to signpost that here and invite you to join us under its broad embracing canopy.

Sean and I have recorded a podcast with Ashley Colby and Nate Gates about distributism which I think will be available soon – I’ll alert you when it is. Sean will also be guest posting here soon in relation to an offline debate we had about agrarian theology (yes, it’s a thing – or it soon will be).

Longer term, I’ll be writing more about some of the political issues raised in that debate. In fact, they’ve already surfaced in discussions on this site between me, Sean, Andrew and others. So one way or another, the political theologies and ideologies underlying the present global crisis will be getting some airtime here. My thanks to Sean and everyone else who’s weighed in with me here and elsewhere on these important questions.

Moving on, the journalist in my title is one George Monbiot who, as regular readers will know, I’ve been discussing recently in relation to his problematic book Regenesis (my original review of Regenesis is here). A quick update on some more resources for this debate. My colleague Jyoti Fernandes (who contributed to the online discussion launching A Small Farm Future) wrote an impassioned open letter to Monbiot about the negative consequences of Regenesis, to which he responded here. Meanwhile, in the same issue of The Land carrying my distributism piece, Simon Fairlie has published an excellent critical review of Regenesis. Simon proposes to call the industrially-fermented high protein foodstuff Monbiot celebrates as the farm-free food for the future ‘studge’, after an unappetizing commercial breakfast dish from a Saki story. Works for me. Henceforth, studge it is.

A friend of mine working in fossil energy divestment suggested to me (very gently and politely) that while I’m spending time excoriating Monbiot online the investors he’s looking at are quietly going on their merry way building out the next phase of global fossil fuel infrastructures. I think he was implying that their actions imperil humanity and the wider Creation rather more than anything Mr Monbiot is doing, and it’s wise to focus on the real enemy.

I take his point, and no doubt it’s easy to succumb to what they call the narcissism of small differences. The problem as I see it is that while investors are gonna invest and drillers are gonna drill, in the UK at least Monbiot has considerable influence on ‘progressive’ and environmentally-minded people. My fear is that unless there’s a successful pushback against Monbiot’s proposals for high-energy, consumerist urbanism he’ll take a lot of these people with him and help build a worldview that, against his aspirations, will ultimately only increase the likelihood of a famished, violent, climate-challenged future. In other words, to coin a phrase used by a recent commenter here, he’s operating as a useful idiot for corporate and fossil fuel interests. It’s not a phrase I use lightly, but I regret it’s one I agree with in this instance.

I suppose it’s worth remembering that Monbiot is a journalist (a trade that’s right up there with politicians, lawyers, landlords and, er, farmers in the unpopularity stakes). Catching people’s attention with over-simplified sensationalism is part and parcel of the job, even if it’s hidden in Monbiot’s case with a more highfaluting approach than is typical of the genre.

That, at any rate, is the most generous interpretation I can find for this recent article from Monbiot, with its cunningly-worded title ‘The most damaging farm products? Organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb’. I’d suggest that anyone who undertakes a survey of the problems caused by global agriculture and concludes that the production of organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb is the key one to highlight really ought to ponder how their analysis went so badly wrong.

There’s been some pushback to that article – for example, here and here. But I fear the damage has been done. Generously, Fairlie suggests that Monbiot’s journalistic sensationalism may have an upside:

“However much one may disagree with his conclusions, one may thank him for raising important questions and intriguing possibilities in a highly readable book. Perhaps he is making extreme proposals simply in order to shift the boundaries of the debate, and hence the perception of what is mainstream, a tactic known as the radical flank effect. The main worry is his repeated characterisation of farming as “the most destructive human activity ever to have blighted the earth”. Agriculture has a lot to answer for; but does it really bear comparison with the threat to life on Earth as we know it from the oil and coal industry?”

My answer to that would be no, and that – far from a radical flank effect – Monbiot’s assumption that humanity’s future inevitably involves high-energy urban consumerism will have a complacent, business-as-usual flank effect that will further lock in fossil fuel dependence. Indeed, as Simon concludes, correctly in my opinion,

“The imperative is not to stop farming, but to phase out fossil fuels very quickly. Cavalier polemics that cast primary responsibility for our predicament elsewhere are a dangerous diversion.”

So it’s damage limitation time for those of us seeking renewable agri/culture. I have nothing like Monbiot’s influence, but I’ll try to play my part in another strand of upcoming posts contrasting a small farm future with his nightmare vision of a studgy regenesis.

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Finally we come to the anthropologist of my title. The editors of The Land asked me to write an obituary/appreciation of Marshall Sahlins, whose work I recently discussed here and here. My obituary was published in the same recent issue of the magazine as the other articles I’ve mentioned. But it’s not available online, so I thought I’d publish it below. I’m sharing the slightly longer original version I wrote before the editorial trimming required to fit it onto a single page of the magazine. Possibly, I’ll also publish here at some point the original and likewise slightly longer draft of the distributism article.

In memory of Marshall Sahlins

I’m glad to have been asked by The Land’s editors to write an obituary of Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021), who was a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago.

A colossus of the discipline from the 1960s right up to his death, Sahlins was a specialist in societies of the South Pacific and wrote formidably intellectual books that – while never wilfully obscure in the manner of some academic writing, and often leavened with wry humour – probably wouldn’t be top of the reading pile for land rights activists, agroecological farmers and other major categories of readership for this magazine. So here I want to say a few words about why his work mattered.

Much the most influential piece of Sahlins’s writing beyond anthropology was the opening essay of his 1972 book Stone Age Economics, ‘The original affluent society’, in which he argued the reality of hunter-gatherer and ‘primitive’ agricultural societies was far from the stereotype of a hardscrabble life scratching miserable returns from an unforgiving nature. The idea that foragers and autonomous farmers enjoyed relatively abundant and convivial lives is quite familiar today, but at the time Sahlins published his essay it was a seismic rupture with the sense of civilizational ascent in which modern, high-energy, urbanized, bureaucratic society placed itself at the apex.

Sahlins wasn’t the only voice contesting this self-satisfied confection, and his arguments and evidence have subsequently been picked over by everyone from eminent professors to the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Still, I’d argue his essay had a profoundly enabling effect for many of us who came afterwards with visions for a future of work grounded in something other than more machinery, more high-energy inputs, more centralized politics, and more expert control.

The other essays in Stone Age Economics are less frequently read by non-specialists but are probably even more relevant for anyone hoping to wrest a renewable, agroecological society from the ever-proliferating ruins of the present. Sahlins’s arguments in them were intricate, but in summary they highlight the difficulties and contradictions, but also the virtues, involved in local, non-monetary societies where households work to satisfy their needs rather than to expand wealth and productivity. And to take seriously the complexities of how people build relationships with others in these and every other kind of society.

Nowadays, we tend to separate these relations with others into different domains we label ‘the political’, ‘the economic’, ‘the family’ and so on. Sahlins wrote incisively on all of these (On Kings, 2017; Stone Age Economics, 1972; What Kinship Is…And Is Not, 2013) but his larger point was that people in most historic societies didn’t separate out these domains, and nor should their latter-day analysts. An abiding concern of his was the power of human culture to construct our mental and social worlds. So his answer to the question implied in that last book title was that kinship is cultural, and is not biological (see also The Use and Abuse of Biology, 1976), nor reducible to any other form of supposedly ‘real’, underlying, material causation.

This concern with culture put Sahlins at odds with Marxism, which he aptly critiqued in Culture and Practical Reason (1976) for accepting at face value a few too many of the categories of the capitalist society it wished to overthrow – another case, perhaps, of the analyst succumbing to the mystifications of the natives. And talking of ‘natives’, Sahlins’s emphasis on cultural worlds also put him at odds with another anthropologist, Gananath Obeyesekere, who took exception to the argument in Sahlins’s book Islands of History (1985) about the strange fate of Captain James Cook in 1779 – first welcomed by Hawaiian islanders and then killed by them – which arose, said Sahlins, because Cook unwittingly blundered into a ritual cycle in which he figured as a god.

The debate prefigured contemporary concerns about how to represent indigenous cultures and who is entitled to do the representing. Obeyesekere’s view that Sahlins had drifted into a colonialist narrative about inferior and credulous natives worshipping a white man as a god prompted a lengthy and empirically detailed response from Sahlins – How ‘Natives’ Think: About Captain Cook, For Example (1995) – which argued indigenous people and their cultural categories deserved greater respect than that. On balance, Sahlins probably got the better of the engagement.

All this may seem of only passing relevance to issues like climate, energy, regenerative agriculture, social justice and access to land of most concern to readers of The Land. Perhaps that’s so. But when I re-read some of Sahlins’s essays recently I was struck by how implicitly informative they’d been to my own attempt to wrestle with these issues in my book A Small Farm Future. It’s hard to summarize the lessons from his writings succinctly, but maybe these: take seriously the long-term cultural categories that people construct over generations, and be aware of how they live within your own thought. Appreciate that civilizational progress delivered by bureaucratic states is one of these cultural stories. Take seriously too kin and exchange relations, and don’t try to reduce them to something else. Don’t assume that some particular category of person – rulers, ordinary subjects, or ‘native’ indigenes – is the ‘real’ agent of change within the system.

When it comes to applying these lessons to agricultural history in Britain or elsewhere with a view to creating a just and renewable agrarian future, what I take from Sahlins’s thought is almost the opposite of what a superficial reading of ‘The original affluent society’ might suggest. There may be some grains of truth in the widely held view that in the past people lived amicably together without private property in extended family groups within egalitarian gift economies of abundant commons and villages, before enclosure of one kind or another by landlords, bosses, colonial states and busybody reformers dragged them kicking and screaming into the oppressive modern world. But the real challenge is in addressing the numerous ways in which this is not true, in sufficient detail to plot a plausible cultural path forwards.

Sahlins himself didn’t write a great deal about these contemporary challenges, and scarcely courted the limelight outside his specialist academic fields. But he was a lynchpin of an influential school of anthropological thought sometimes characterized as ‘the Chicago anarchists’. Its most famous son was David Graeber, of whom Sahlins wrote “David was a student of mine; I supervised his thesis at the University of Chicago. Since then it has been difficult to say who is the student and who the teacher” (On Kings,p.xv). Graeber was very much his own man, but in many ways his political activism and his books – Debt, Bullshit Jobs, The Dawn of Everything, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology – carried Sahlins’s legacy into a more active political engagement with the modern world, especially in the idea that government is an endless problem with no really satisfactory solution.

To finish on a personal note, I met Sahlins a couple of times in the 1980s when he offered me a PhD studentship at Chicago. In the event, I turned the offer down, partly because of the apparent state of tribal warfare in the anthropology department and partly because I felt unworthy to dwell among such gods. He kindly wrote to me wishing me ‘good luck and good anthropology’, which I feel my later career as a kind of amateur scholar-farmer has fulfilled, not least from the ongoing stimulation of reading his books. Along, sadly, with David Graeber, he’s now left us to join the ancestors. But unlike the dead kings he and Graeber described in their book On Kings, who in death dominate the living kings in ever more troublesome ways, instead they’ve left a sparkling corpus of works we can keep beside us to help illuminate our paths into the future.

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: agrarian localism, distributism, small farm future