Food & Water

From nations to republics: front parlour or front porch?

March 29, 2023

Continuing the final descent of this blog cycle to finishing its discussion of A Small Farm Future, Chapter 18 of my bookis called ‘From nations to republics’. I hope to say more on this theme in the future, but for now just a few words here on this chapter.

Nationalism has been much the most successful of political projects worldwide over the last couple of centuries, and a major employer of politicians, writers, historians, cartographers, soldiers, bureaucrats, priests, academics, architects, policy wonks and others whose work has helped build the story that the modern political power emanating territorially to the boundaries of the world’s existing nation-states from hallowed ground at the heart of their capital cities is justifiable, natural and uncontestable.

I think that story will come to an end, and we’ve now entered the beginning of it. In my book, and probably in the tenor of my comments so far in this post, I convey a view that its end is overdue, and welcome. And that pretty much is how I see it, although perhaps I should concede there’s a more positive case that can be made about nationalism – something along the lines of bringing people together around a shared project to use centralized politics to move positively into the future to the benefit of all. Maybe one indicator of how seriously to take that is the shape of the hallowed ground I mentioned at the centre of the nation’s capital – more seriously, perhaps, if it’s a public square, less seriously if it’s a walled fortress. Though some pretty nasty things can happen in public squares. Anyway, I believe that positive shared project has had its day. It’s hard to see nationalist rejuvenation of existing centralized states as a viable project for the future.

The terrain of the nation is now pretty much entirely the ground of the self-consciously ‘reactionary’ right, along with a few ‘progressive’ politicians riding on its coat tails in the hope of getting more votes. These right-wing nationalists like to insist that their version of the national story is the only authentic one, with others dismissed as the bad faith product of wokeism or other enemies from within. But, as I argue in Chapter 18, for every nationalist narrative that tries to create some singularity around national history and destiny there are always several counter-narratives that bring a different account of history to the fore. Attempts to forge singular nationalisms are doomed to fail, often bloodily.

Attempts to re-enchant local landscapes with social meaning are a different kettle of fish, as – for example – with environmentalist movements like bioregionalism that I broadly endorse. But I think it’s important not to connect these movements with statist nationalism, an approach long favoured by the far right that seems to be gaining force again. Love and soil over blood and soil. In my chapter, I criticized a somewhat notorious essay by Paul Kingsnorth for making such connections – a criticism I stand by, though I’ve recently come to re-appreciate much of Paul’s project.

In the context of supersedure state situations, I believe the more promising political form of the local state is republican (but not, I’d stress, Republican), and I talk about this a bit in Chapter 18, pretty much along the lines of earlier essays I’ve written here (eg. this one). I won’t go over that ground again just now. A key aspect of republics is that they usually emerge out of some political crisis in which citizens break decisively with a preceding polity and define a new common basis for collective political life. Typically, this requires a founder or a law giver to reset the basis of the political community.

As with all political forms, republics are beset with problems and tend to degenerate over time into oligopolies or other more problematic forms. The problem with the founder or the law giver is that they’re just some guy. The problem with forms of political authority that base themselves around some more naturalized or divine source of sovereignty is that ultimately the interpreters and custodians of these forms are ultimately just some guys. I’m basically a believer in the self-sovereignty of small farm proprietors as the foundation of the republic, because a small farm proprietor is just some guy too, which makes it easier to tolerate the ministrations of the larger republican state – you have your own domain of sovereignty, and the larger state becomes tolerable in that context, especially in view of the alternatives. Its very artificiality underlines its importance.

I don’t think a political vision of that sort need be wholly incompatible with ones grounded in a more organic sense of tradition, but that’s something I hope to write more about in the future. One thing I stressed in my book chapter and that I do want to stress here is the danger of what I called ‘front parlour’ republicanism. What I had in mind with this metaphor is the kind of domestic culture where people keep one room in the house clean and tidy with all their best possessions on display specifically to host distinguished visitors with whom they behave with utmost decorum, while the dirt, hard work, power games and dispute is kept hidden in the other rooms round the back. I wanted to highlight by analogy the dangers of creating little bubbles of self-congratulatory civic republicanism that deliberately or unwittingly keep hidden the toil of other people in maintaining the façade of republican freedom and autonomy.

An obvious modern example of that would be the Southern Agrarians in the US, who I believe had genuinely interesting things to say about small-scale farming societies, but in keeping slavery largely out of their front parlour vision fatally undermined their analysis. I consider a lot of small town or small farm republicanism today likewise as front parlour efforts overly concerned with who doesn’t qualify for membership in ways that limit its potential for building plausible post-global and post-capitalist societies.

When I wrote about ‘front parlour’ republicanism I hadn’t come across the Front Porch Republic initiative in the US, as laid out here by Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen. From parlour to porch, another architectural metaphor. I like the idea of the front porch as an outward-looking liminal space between private and public, between local households and local community.

Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed is also worth a read. It’s grounded in a more conservative worldview than my own, but aside from the odd passage of gammon I found myself largely in accord with its criticisms of why both left/progressive and conservative forms of liberal politics have delivered us into the present parlous state of politics. After liberalism, then, I believe the task is to steer our societies towards a small farm civic republicanism of the front porch and not the front parlour variety. I don’t think that’s going to be easy.

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