I’ve now blogged my way through Parts I-III of A Small Farm Future in this marathon cycle of posts. Only Part IV remains. But before I get onto that (…this is why it’s been such a marathon), I want to devote a few posts to various other issues – some of them reiterations or clarifications of things in the book I’ve already discussed here, some of them touching on older concerns of this blog or issues that I lacked the space to address in the book, and some of them engaging with the growing list of people who publicly disagree with me about something or other.
I’m going to start with one of those ‘issues I lacked the space to address in the book’, namely health and social welfare in a small farm future. Actually, I did write a chapter about this but then cut it from the final version because I needed to reduce the word count and I felt the chapter wasn’t especially illuminating. Partly, this was because it was caught on the horns of a writing dilemma I’ve previously discussed, in trying to steer between bold blueprints and honest handwringing about the difficulties involved.
Anyway, several people have suggested it would be a good idea for me to address this issue. They’re probably right, so here goes. I’m going to make a few general remarks about it in this post, some slightly more specific ones in the following post, and then in the one after that I’ll publish the ‘missing’ chapter.
At the risk of starting on an overly defensive note, my first question concerning how to characterize welfare provision in a small farm future is, compared to what? It sometimes seems that lurking behind questions about welfare in a small farm future is an implicit sense that it’ll be so much worse than today that arguments for a small farm future lack prima facie credibility.
In response, I’d argue firstly that health and welfare provision isn’t that great as things stand right now for a great many, perhaps the majority, of the world’s people, and secondly that on present trends it’s more likely to get worse than better, even if we retain highly capitalized, energized and urbanized societies long into the future. More importantly I’d also argue that when you throw in the reality of melting ice caps, melting capital reserves, melting energy capacities and melting climatic, oceanic and geopolitical stability in the coming years, the capacity of any imaginable future society to take good care of people’s health and welfare is in doubt.
Still, it remains reasonable to ask what welfare provision might look like in future societies geared around agrarian localism, where the livelihoods of many are based on providing their own food and fibre. Reasonable to ask, but hard to answer in detail – so much depends on the unknowable facts of the transition and their consequences. But I’ll try to hazard a few guesses.
To assist in the guesswork, it will help to grasp some basic realities of present welfare provision. For simplicity and familiarity, I’ll stick with my home country of the UK. I imagine the basic points I’m making apply more widely, especially to other wealthy countries.
Table 1 gives a breakdown of where the approximately £1 trillion of UK government expenditure in 2021-22 went. It shows just the largest seven items, which between them swallowed almost 80% of the spending (the source for the data is here) (click for larger image.)
Much the largest single item at 28% of total spend is social protection, encompassing welfare benefits and social services. The largest single item of expenditure within this 28% is old age pension payments, comprising nearly 40% of it, with sickness and disability payments second (21%).
The next largest item is health services, comprising 20% of total government expenditure, with education a distant third at 10%. The remaining four items summed together account for a little bit less than the total spent on health.
Table 2 shows expenditure by economic category across all the different divisions of public sector expenditure, broken down into the five largest categories, which between them account for 86% of total government expenditure (the data source is the same as Table 1). Procurement is the largest item, followed by grants (a big slice of these being old age pensions again), then pay, with debt service and private sector subsidy trailing far behind.
My final data presentation in Table 3 gives a breakdown of the UK workforce by employment sector (the data source is here). Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing is the smallest single sector, currently at less than 1% of the total workforce. In a small farm future, this figure would of course be a lot larger, demanding concomitant reductions from another sector or sectors. I’ll also note that the public service professions of health, social work and education between them account for about a quarter of the workforce.
I’m now going to suggest a thought experiment. Suppose the government announced that after some short period of grace – five years, say – all government expenditure and oversight of the economy would cease, save for military defence of external borders and due judicial process in relation to major crime. No more imports, government-backed financial instruments, or centrally-sanctioned banking. Probably also a ban on financial flows from abroad, and on people changing their main place of residence.
I admit that it’s a contrived, implausible and rather unpleasant set of suggestions. But I hope it might help focus attention on some underlying aspects of welfare.
(Editor’s note: I first drafted the preceding paragraphs a few days before the now ex-Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng pronounced his disastrous ‘mini-budget’ on 23 September, the long-term consequences of which will probably align quite closely with the thought experiment detailed therein. So not such an implausible thought experiment after all! While the UK’s present woes were self-inflicted by an inept government, similar – or worse – circumstances seem destined to be the fate of many people worldwide in the longer term. All the more reason to really focus your attention, then…)
In the eventuality I’ve described, once people were fully disabused of the notion that the government was joking or that some other outside saviour would step in, I think a lot of them would instantly stop working in employments of a more abstract character that weren’t directed towards satisfying local material and social needs – which, by my reckoning, could amount to nearly half the jobs encompassed in Table 3. Many people would switch focus to producing food, fibre and other material requisites of everyday life. So there would be a lot of work in farming, forestry, construction, energy, water and manufacturing, albeit in radically changed forms from the present that emphasized low-energy input production for local need. Other people would dedicate themselves to maintaining and transmitting knowledge, and to supporting health and social connections locally, so there would also be a lot of work in education, health and community/social services. All of this would be no bad thing, in my opinion – we need to generate work in job-heavy, welfare-heavy, carbon-light sectors, into which the above could easily fit.
This work couldn’t be paid for in the way it now is, because in the new reality there is no money in the familiar sense. But even if there were, or if some new localized tokens of exchange were created, it would now be clear that money is only a means to the more important end of material and social community flourishing – food, clothes, shelter, health and human connection. So, looking at Table 2, we could at least in theory cross out most of that expenditure without really losing anything. People don’t fundamentally need pay or grants, and they certainly don’t need debt interest or subsidies. The givers and the recipients of welfare (doctors/patients, pension fund managers/pensioners, teachers/students, social workers/clients) in fact all need the same things. They need food, clothes, shelter, health and human connection. Much of this can probably be produced locally by people dedicated to its provision, making most of the expenditure in Table 2 moot. The main exception would be some proportion of procurement, on the assumption that there are things it would be good to have (X-ray machines, reference books) that have to come from somewhere and involve a cost of some sort that has to be paid somehow.
In other words, there’s a localist critique of commodity welfare provision which parallels the localist critique of commodity food provision. In both cases, our ability to provide for these things ourselves locally has been removed, repackaged and commodified as a specialist service and then sold back to us. Actually, that’s less true of welfare provision than food provision, since so much welfare is still provided locally by non-professionals. This applies, of course, to care for children from their parents, but also to adult-to-adult care, which is mostly received by elderly people. In 2016, 2 million UK adults received informal care, the majority from a closely related adult aged over 50. Meanwhile, participation in the existing world of formal work doesn’t necessarily allay welfare needs – a recent study found that the majority of people living in poverty in the UK were in a household where at least one member was in work.
So my opening gambit in relation to the question of providing welfare in small farm societies of the future is to say that these societies could possibly deliver many aspects of it as well or even better than our present heavily globalized and commoditized ones. A local society not geared to ‘employment’ but to furnishing local material and social wellbeing might unleash far greater human capacities to deliver welfare through unyoking people’s time, creative capacities and social engagement from the need to serve capital accumulation.
My position here is consonant with Hilary Cottam’s excellent book Radical Help (Virago, 2018), in which she argues for a shift from the dominant 20th century model of welfare, where relatively highly-paid professionals deliver services to people who are in need because something has gone wrong in their lives. As Cottam puts it,
“The question is not how can we fix these services, but rather, as I stand beside you, how can I support you to create change … And the emphasis is not on managing need but creating capability …. At the heart of this new way of working is human connection” (p.15).
That sounds idealistic, and maybe it is – but Cottam gives numerous examples of local projects where the approach has borne fruit, based on a kind of mycelial model of multiplying local connections and relationships to which there’s no necessary end, as compared to paying people more or less handsomely in the present monetized economy to address unmet needs, to which there certainly is. She reports that Ernest Beveridge, the architect of the postwar British welfare state, came to regret deeply that his model had failed to reckon with the importance of human relationships.
Given that my thought experiment by definition excludes government agency in manifesting these relationships, we have to ask what kind of local structures would deliver them. I’m going to leave that aside for the time being, because answering it is basically the same as answering what kind of politics it’s realistic to aspire to in a small farm future, and we’ll get to that in due course. But for a taster I’ll say that I’m increasingly drawn to the kind of answers apt to infuriate leftists and gladden the hearts of conservatives – individuals, households, families, schools, churches and voluntary associations (but some professionals too, no doubt). For now, I’ll simply add that if conservatives really took these things seriously, conservative politics would look very different from its present pallid state, while if the left took them seriously it would strike closer to the politics of human collectivity it theoretically espouses than present thin commitments to state provision.
But that’s for another time. For now, I just want to posit the possibility that small farm societies of the future might potentially deliver a decent level of human wellbeing. I don’t, however, mean to overplay the rosiness of the future that awaits. So in my next post I’ll home in on a few specific areas of welfare and try to appraise some of the difficulties involved as honestly as I can.