Act: Inspiration

The supersedure state revisited

March 8, 2023

It’s time to get stuck into the final few posts of this blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future. At long last, we’ve now reached the fourth and final part of the book, ‘Towards a small farm future’.

Probably the most important idea that I try to develop in this part of the book is what I call ‘the supersedure state’. I don’t plan to go over the same ground here as in the book, but here’s a quick overview. Most mainstream positions across the political spectrum are invested in getting control of the modern, centralized, bureaucratic nation-state as the key vehicle for realizing their disparate visions. Anarchists of various kinds, on the other hand, are invested in building bottom-up visions of well-functioning societies without a centralized state.

I accept that modern centralized states sometimes take good actions and that some of their actors are well-intentioned, but for reasons much discussed in previous posts that I won’t rehearse here, I think such states are congenitally incapable of creating the low-energy, localist societies that will be needed in the future. And whether they’re capable or not, I also believe their controlling power is likely to wane.

I’m reasonably sympathetic to bottom-up anarchist alternatives to the centralized modern nation-state, but I don’t think it’s possible to wish it (or indeed to fight it) out of existence. Instead, I think such states will die a hundred protracted and messy deaths, while continuing to try to discharge their familiar functions in increasingly haphazard and dysfunctional ways. These zombie states will, given the chance, smother the grassroots localist renewals that are so badly needed like an impermeable mulch, denying light and moisture to the seedbeds of the world to come.

I don’t think it’s possible to say how this will play out. Possibly, the zombie states will take us all down with them in global total war, implacable authoritarian surveillance or ecological meltdown. But it seems to me more appealing outcomes are possible, at least in some places, where people find ways to escape or avoid the death throes of the zombie states and pioneer new ways of life, and this is what I want to help nurture and amplify.

States and civilizations have collapsed many times in the past. But we’re in an unprecedented situation globally today, with such a vast population so reliant on high-energy resource flows orchestrated by a tightly-organized global network of centralized states increasingly incapable of organizing those flows, whose citizenries are extraordinarily alienated from the material and mental resource base needed to generate local livelihoods.

So it’s a supremely challenging situation. But also, I think, a very different one structurally to previous collapses, which typically pitted military entrepreneurs against disenfranchised cultivators. A more typical present situation, in the Global North at least, is likely to pit a still sovereign but increasingly ineffective territorial bureaucratic state against a semi-enfranchised and practically incompetent but possibly quick-learning populace. The results could be interesting.

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Supersedure situations in which the zombie state fails to deliver welfare locally and people have to start innovating their own local solutions can take many forms and by their nature are always going to be locally specific and deeply contextual. I don’t think you can write down in a book or in any general piece of writing how it could or should all play out according to some generalized blueprint – that way of thinking is precisely in the nature of the modernist centralized state, whose time is basically up. All you can do in generalist writing is point to the overall process and the need to get busy pioneering good local answers in supersedure situations.

As I see it, good local answers will most likely draw from elements of the politics and economics of the modernist world out of which they’ll emerge – liberals and leftists and conservatives and anarchists all have useful things to say. But none of them have a complete solution to the unprecedented situation of the supersedure state. Indeed, there is no complete solution, and the very idea that one might exist is part of the damaged legacy of modernism that requires supersedure.

The way to go in general, I’d suggest, is an inclusive local populism, and it’s hard to be more specific than that. The risk of taking this position – and this is a charge that others have levelled at me – is that it doesn’t amount to much more than vague liberal hand-waving along the lines of ‘as things fall apart, wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all just play nicely with one another’, which doesn’t get very far. Maybe it’s a fair charge, but I’d respond to it in three ways.

First, thinking about the people who’ve levelled it (and I won’t mention names here), they seem either to subscribe to a strongly tech-cornucopian line or to radically left-wing or right-wing positions. In relation to the first, well, I just think tech’s not gonna save us – we’re not all going to increase our wealth and happiness while reducing our environmental footprints. This points to the need for radically social ways of dealing with constraint and conflict, rather than complacent assumptions about fully etiolated luxury consumerism. So I come back to populism – however difficult, we need to find ways to play nice.

As to the ideologues of left and right, they seem to be really convinced that they’re on the right side of history and once all the infidels have come onside, or been forced onside, the inherent correctness of their position means there’s no need for wishy-washy compromise. Whereas as I see it the chances of creating universal concord around correct politics are zero. So, again, we come back around to the need for radically social ways of dealing with constraint and conflict.

Ultimately, I think these are all modernist affectations of ‘one true path’ thinking that are destined to die with the zombie states that will be their final repository as supersedure situations slowly overwhelm them.

Second response: ‘wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all just play nicely with one another’ may be less vague, wishy-washy or unattainable than it sounds. Framed through different words, it can be pretty specific, hard-edged, radical and semi-achievable. I won’t expound on this at length here, but the kinds of things I have in mind that have influenced me include (1) populist land reform movements, where access to farmland for ordinary people is a precondition of playing nicely; (2) resilient and adaptive ethical universalisms of the kind associated with world religions and churches; (3) perhaps conversely, resilient and adaptive particularisms of the kind associated with indigenous livelihood communities; and, (4) the powerful peace and community development work done in violent, divided societies, drawing on thinking such Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication framework.

Third response: from a populist point of view, the only way of creating social concord is in practice, by working to create it somehow in actual, living communities. Writers and political thinkers have a role to play in that, maybe in helping scope the terrain and clarify some of the available choices, but I’m not convinced that they – we – have a more important role than anyone else who’s doing what they’re doing to create congenial lifeways for their households and communities. So to those who tell me I haven’t explained how to create a congenial and renewable society, I guess I’d reply that my book helpfully demonstrated how existing centralized political structures can’t do that, whereas localized agrarian structures might just be able to, if they can steer a path through the wreckage of the former. And I found that work plenty hard enough – only one small piece in the mosaic, along with all the other hard-hewn pieces that other people’s work has furnished, but a piece nonetheless. And now it’s time for me to get busy doing some practical local steering. Then I’d ask them what part of the mosaic they’re working on themselves.

At least I probably would say all that if I hadn’t just written another darned book that goes through all this again, albeit in a slightly different way. OK, this time I really am gonna get busy with some steering.

Apologies if the above sounds overly defensive. I’ve probably spent a little too much time lately mired in the narrative of the writer as prophet bringing magic solutions, an odd affliction of our present age that’s supposedly abandoned such fancies. Anyway, in the next couple of posts I’ll try to ground what I’ve said here in some more specific examples.

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: building resilient societies, small farm future, supersedure state