A small farm future and the supersedure state: a Welsh perspective

March 17, 2023

Here, I’m going to continue the discussion of the supersedure state from my last post, focusing on the Welsh perspective developed by Carwyn Graves in his excellent review of my book, A Small Farm Future. I should have done this a long time ago, but it’s taken me this long to blog my way to the part of the book that’s most relevant to his review, particularly the critical aspects of it.

To over-generalize about those critical aspects, Carwyn’s main objection is my tendency towards over-generalization. Small farm futures, he rightly says, are going to be locally specific, will look different in different places, and will succeed or fail as a result of specific local dynamics – dynamics which I don’t really consider in any detail in the book.

Carwyn calls this a weakness in my argument. Since he kindly goes on to describe my book as a ‘watershed work’ in the same sentence, I don’t plan to get too shirty about this, but I suppose if I were to mount a defence I’d probably say that I see this less as a weakness of my argument so much as an unavoidable political faultline in the societies to come, a practical weakness to be worked on politically, which I can point to in a book but can’t really resolve on the page.

My main purpose in the book was only to suggest that a small farm future is pretty much a given, and whether that future proves attractive or ugly is collectively down to us and our successors. Happily for me, Carwyn basically accepts that suggestion and moves on quickly to a key follow-up question – how to make that future attractive in his own location, and how to surmount the particular local obstacles involved. Unfortunately, remarkably few people do accept my basic suggestion, which I think is going to make the landing all the harder. A large part of my efforts in the book went into explaining why I believe they should accept it, leaving me little room to sketch out the details of future local transformations – transformations which, in any case, I doubt can be convincingly analysed a priori.

All the same, I think Carwyn does identify a potential weak point in my argument where I state that ‘everybody’s voice counts’ in the formation of local agrarian societies. He suggests this too easily glosses the practical difficulties of making them count, and he’s probably right. This leads him into a subtle and thought-provoking account of these difficulties in the context of contemporary Wales.

There are three aspects of his account that I’ll address here. The first is what he calls the lack of a strong civic sphere in Wales, with the national conversation taking place within different bubbles of language and historical identity, leaving little room to discuss other issues in ways possible for countries with more unified civic spheres. The second is, in his words, “the destruction over recent decades of the lingering vestiges of peasant culture in this country, as in other parts of north-western Europe”. And the third is the need for a successful small farm society to be built bottom-up within rural communities, whose members are unlikely to put their hands to the task unless they fully own the process without feeling it’s being foisted on them as an outside solution to somebody else’s problem.

These are all excellent points which I suspect are relevant in varied local ways in many places besides Wales, so I’ll try to address them briefly.

The first one I think may cut both ways. It’s likely that in the challenging times upon us every existing social faultline will get vigorously stress-tested, so the issues Carwyn raises about the civic sphere in Wales may indeed prove problematic there (or, in fact, here, as appropriately enough I happen to be in Wales as I write these words).

On the other hand, such faultlines may also be sources of local political identity facing away from the existing bureaucratic centralized state, which could be a positive in supersedure situations where state power is waning. Places with a strong civic sphere that’s historically oriented to a powerful state apparatus may actually be in a worse situation as that apparatus falters. I suspect Welsh and Scottish nationalisms may, for example, be more likely to form a promising basis for future small farm societies than English nationalisms grounded in a sense of past world-historical colonial power of the kind that have led to dead-end fantasies of national renewal of the Faragist sort. Carwyn aptly describes Wales as a small country on the periphery of the western inner ring of the global capitalist economy. If and when the centre cannot hold, the periphery may not be the worst place to be.

I’ll turn now to Carwyn’s second point about the final destruction of peasant culture in Europe. The destruction is plain enough, albeit depending somewhat on how you define ‘destruction’ and ‘peasant culture’ (Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, for example, has discussed the process of ‘re-peasantization’ occurring in contemporary Europe and elsewhere). But inasmuch as the destruction may have been slightly less thorough in parts of Wales than in, say, most of England, with the former’s small owner-occupied farms and persisting sense of local rural identity, this raises interesting issues.

Perhaps my approach to this in A Small Farm Future was too dualistic. Basically, I said good luck to the small minority of people globally who’ve been able to preserve some kind of local agrarian livelihood autonomy through all that modernity has thrown at them, and I hoped they’d be left alone to get on with it in the next phase of global history. I then devoted most of my attention to those people, the global majority, who are going to have to reinvent themselves as peasantries. In this latter case, while I offered unreserved support to anyone who speaks up for ordinary agrarian, village or small town life, I expressed impatience with such arguments when they start building boundaries around who’s entitled to claim authentic local identity and who’s defined as a kind of deracinated bearer of global modernist culture – mostly because in a country like England (or Wales … or most places in the Global North) it struck me that everybody is a kind of deracinated bearer of global modernist culture, and claims to local authenticity seemed little more than a rhetorical tactic to claim social status.

But Carwyn’s analysis makes me think I should have been a bit more nuanced about this. If you push my argument to its extreme it easily becomes a kind of primitivism of the form that, say, an indigenous person in Australia or the Americas can’t be a ‘real’ indigenous person if they drive a car … or small-scale farmers in Wales can’t articulate the importance of local identity and history simply because they inevitably have to involve themselves with non-local identity and history. To put myself in the frame, when I was searching for land to live on I looked at a few properties in Wales and decided against them partly on the grounds that I thought I’d feel like an interloper there, whereas living as I now do on the edge of a town in southern England a hundred miles from where I grew up and close to one of its largest cities, I’ve felt more relaxed about arguing my case against the occasional ‘real local’ hostilities I encounter.

So there are gradations. And also a sense that I should probably have done more to acknowledge that whether we’re talking about southwest Wales or northeast Somerset, there are voices that don’t get heard, or that get heard only in certain limited circles of civic culture – voices that are invested in a sense of their localness, and that have to be a part of any convincing rebuild of renewable local culture.

I wasn’t too shy about emphasizing in A Small Farm Future the world of profound social crisis that we’ve now entered, but perhaps I didn’t emphasize enough that I think this crisis will greatly disrupt existing notions of insider- and outsider-hood. There are going to be a lot of people on the move, probably mostly quite short distances, and typically from urban to rural situations. In this new world, access to land will matter, social connections will matter and practical skills will matter (especially those few vestiges of peasant skills, like knowing how to make a hay rick, rather than knowing how to set up a silage baler-wrapper), whereas a lot of the other things that mattered to people’s sense of identity in the world that we’re losing – a highly-paid position in senior management, or a local lineage that goes back generations – won’t matter all that much in themselves, except maybe inasmuch as they help to leverage the things that do matter.

A lot of people on the left like to stress that the world of trouble we’re entering will press most heavily on the poor and the otherwise disadvantaged – and rightly so, up to a point. But it strikes me that some of the benefits that accrued to the privileged in the world we’re leaving won’t necessarily benefit them so much in the world we’re entering. So whose voice counts locally and whose voice isn’t heard may not quite be the foregone conclusion it currently seems.

The upshot as I see it is that if there are rural communities who wish to say “we’re good thanks, no incomers here please” then fair play to them. To do that, of course they’d have to have quite a collectively unified vision, so they’d already be ahead of the game in terms of adjusting to the new world of low-energy localism. Equally, they couldn’t expect much service or input from the wider world, and that might prove more of a burden than some who define themselves around local pedigree might imagine.

I’d distinguish that response from the kind of angry, anti-immigrant nativism that’s inevitably whipped up by bad faith political actors in times of stress, as is the case presently alas with Britain’s current government (there’s an interesting story to be told here that’s alive in the present news about the good faith populism marshalled by celebrity footballers like Marcus Rashford and Gary Lineker in holding those actors to account, but I won’t try to tell it here). Generally, though, I think rural communities will do best if they’re readier to embrace who shows up, and try to take a regenerative or clean communication, no blame no shame approach to the identifications of their members. Many rural communities have been depopulated and eviscerated by fossil-fuelled urbanism. Maybe they can be rejuvenated by low-energy localism helped along by incomers as well as insiders.

I suspect this is easier when people are devoting themselves to producing land-based livelihoods or to other useful products that serve them, as will be the case in a supersedure situation. Certainly, it’s seemed easier to me to relate to local farmers and other landworkers around shared practical reference points as compared to differences of background that might otherwise alienate us from each other.

All of which is to say that the concept of the accursed middle-class, back-to-the-land, gentrifying incomer may not prove the best optic through which to size up the challenges of the world to come. It’s kind of inevitable, but I suspect it will be quite short-lived in the grander historical drama we’re now entangled with, and it may serve people best across the various divides it mobilises to kill it off as quickly as possible.

None of that is intended as a criticism of Carwyn for rightly pointing to the local complications of creating a small farm future. These are real issues that need to be worked on. But I don’t think I can really pre-empt or define how to work on them in general outside specific settings. That’s the work that lies before all of us locally. And while I’m aware that sentences like my last one are open to critique for the over-easy liberal universalism involved in invoking such an ‘us’, especially when they’re spoken by a relatively privileged voice such as mine, I feel that’s where I must lay my hat. The challenge is to create a local ‘us’, not a universal one, that becomes authentic enough to survive the inevitable local conflicts among whoever’s living locally. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think it does need to be the direction of travel, because the alternatives are worse. To invoke a metaphor from a technology that I don’t see a role for in a small farm future, the good driver needs to adjust their behaviour by constantly checking the rear-view mirror – but checking it too much is inadvisable. This has various implications for current standard fare politics of the left and right that I plan to address at a later date.

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 a resilient food and farming system, building a resilient society, small farm future