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Two lefts

July 18, 2023

Before I wade into blogging about my new book Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future, I’d like to take a step back and try to characterize some of the broader political contours that have now put me in a different camp to George Monbiot, the main antagonist in my book, despite our similar starting point on what some people would no doubt characterize as the ‘far left’.

One strand of that left-wing starting point emerges out of Marxism and the history of Marxist regimes, with a strong influence on the left beyond those who explicitly identify as Marxist. It emphasizes state power and dirigisme, technological ‘progress’, an emphasis on science as truth in the arena of politics as well as the biophysical realm, and (in my opinion) a rather paternalistic form of class alliance between a middle-class intelligentsia and ordinary people, the former aiming to use the ‘truth’ of its scientific knowledge to improve the lot of the latter. This has been the dominant strand of socialist thought, and I believe it’s the one that Monbiot is working within. Perhaps we could call it the modernist left.

A subordinate and more libertarian strand on the left is on the contrary suspicious of centralizing bureaucratic political power, leans towards pluralism and anti-universalism in its conception of politics and class alliance, invests more attention to ideas like meaning and virtue than ones like truth and progress, and is not overly committed to manufacturing and engineering technologies as a way of delivering these goods. This is the strand that I identify with, and that I’ve explored over the years on this blog in relation to traditions like agrarian populism, producerism, civic republicanism and anarchism. Let’s call it the anti-modernist left.

In 2016 I published a review of Monbiot’s book How Did We Get Into This Mess? in which I diagnosed a tension in it between “whether you address problems in the manner of the rational-bureaucratic planner, asking how best to deliver services to the population, or whether you address them in the manner of the autonomous native, asking how best to inhabit and thrive in the land you call home.” In his book, I wrote, “he stands at the doorway of the producerist or agrarian populist vision I believe we need if we’re to create a just and sustainable future. But he doesn’t quite step through. In future books or collaborations I hope he will”.

Well, I think I can now safely say that he didn’t. In fact, he turned on his heel and headed the other way, back to Route One modernist leftism. Whereas I guess I’ve stepped further through the door into an agrarian localism less oriented to familiar leftist trappings, albeit still committed to equity and social justice. So – two different camps.

From a left-wing perspective, each of these camps can easily find itself consorting with some curious bedfellows. The whole dirigisme/state power/science-as-truth thing with its logics of efficiency, population-level scaling, breakthrough technologies and consumerism-as-progress easily connects with private sector corporate monopoly. Hence books like People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundations for Socialism. Hence also, I’d suggest, the enthusiasm of Pictet Asset Management for George Monbiot’s takes on the future of food.

On the agrarian localist side, scepticism about big scale, centralized government, scientism and solutionism can easily connect with a basically conservative critique of modernism and liberalism. For my part, I’m happy to embrace a large portion of that critique. Unashamedly, I’ve been influenced by people like Wendell Berry, Christopher Lasch, Alasdair MacIntyre and other intellectually subtle exponents of that tradition. But conservative localist critiques of big government can easily veer into more problematic territory around any number of issues: religion, social and gender identities, migration, climate change, deep state conspiracy theories and so forth. There are some tricky lines to negotiate, and sometimes I fear I’ve been a bit wrongfooted by them in online discussions.

“I fear…” – well, what exactly do I fear? Maybe I can frame an answer to that in terms of two events, one very small, and one very big.

The very small event was the hatchet job review of my book A Small Farm Future shortly after it came out by a pair of Marxist bros. Their main beef with it was basically that it isn’t Marxist, for example in the way it takes seriously categories such as kin relations and private property that Marxist orthodoxy generally wishes to abolish.

Perhaps the real issue is that Marxists tend to think that only Marxism is proper, clear-seeing (‘scientific’) leftism, with other strands of leftwing thought corrupted by their partial, situated, bourgeois values. Whereas for my part I tend to see Marxism as thoroughly imbued with bourgeois values, and situated within a partial, modernist logic of technocracy and progress which is rapidly running out of road.

More on that another time, perhaps. Coming back to the question of my fears, I was tentative in A Small Farm Future on issues like family and property because I was conscious of their unorthodoxy within the leftwing circles that still felt like home to me at that time. The book review irked me at several levels when it came out, but it’s been liberating in the long run in my journey to free myself from the need to necessarily take Marxist orthodoxies more seriously than those of other political ideologies (I should add that I still believe there’s much to be learned from subtler variants of Marxist thought).

Anyway, after writing A Small Farm Future I deliberately opened myself up to engagement with a wider range of political voices, including conservative ones that my earlier political self might have dismissed out of hand as not the right kind of people to be talking with. I can’t say it’s always been easy, or – as I said above – that I’ve always negotiated the terrain as expertly as I’d have liked. When people have talked about ‘filthy socialists’ or ‘degenerate libtards’ the best way to respond has been obvious enough: don’t respond at all, and seek the nearest exit. But there are some trickier grey areas.

One thing I’m pretty sure of is that there isn’t going to be a socialist revolution that sweeps away all this supposedly incorrect thought – not one that lasts for any appreciable length of time, anyway. And while it’s easy to walk away from it online, it’s not so easy to walk away from it in real life as localization and conflicts over access to land and resources hot up. Still, most of the online antagonism I’ve experienced from the right has come from the USA. I don’t live there and I don’t think its politics are particularly representative of the wider world, so maybe I don’t need to invest more than I already have in those debates. In fact, probably less. Having said that, I do think there’s an interesting anti-government homesteading space in the USA which might prefigure a wider global politics – and it occurs to me that there’s more political diversity within this numerically tiny group than there is in the multitudes still invested in modern consumer society and its forms of governance. More on that another time too, perhaps.

I’ll now move on from the very small event to the very big one, namely the Covid19 pandemic. I’m going to preface my remarks by stating that as a multiply vaccinated and devoutly lockdown-fearing man, my personal stance on it has been very mainstream. All the same, it feels like something a little strange has happened politically on the mainstream left in recent years, and I wonder if the pandemic has something to do with it.

The package of measures that most governments adopted to deal with the pandemic involved asking their citizenries to follow a raft of top-down directives, to believe what health experts told them ‘the science’ suggested was necessary, to avail themselves of medical high-technology, and to adjust their behaviour to forms of social control consistent with public health requirements. In the case of the pandemic, I think these were the right things to do. But I can imagine other scenarios, for example ones connected with energy and land use, where governments might reach for a similar rulebook and where I would dissent entirely from the narrative.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, large elements of the modernist left seem to have become heavily invested in pandemic-type responses as a generic form more than as something that was pragmatically necessary in that context – centralized directives, following ‘the science’, high-tech solutionism, and responsible citizenship as judged from the political centre. They also seem to have become more invested in excommunicating rather than debating people who dissent from that narrative – particularly in relation to the pandemic, but also with a worrisomely wider net.

It seems likely that governments will be resorting increasingly to the authoritarian rulebook in the future as system shocks proliferate and they’re called upon to manage ever more complex and demanding crises within an increasingly ill-equipped apparatus of governance and value extraction. These governments might lean more right or more left, but the fact they lean towards centralized, high-tech solutionism and authoritarianism may prove more significant. As a (once?) wise man once said, the present reality is a captive state, subordinated to corporate interests. So while its reins of power might incline more politically right or left at any given moment, the overall direction of travel is much the same. It’s surely revealing when a social democratic figure like Jeremy Corbyn prompts such vilification from media organs like The Guardian and the BBC.

What’s surprising to me and potentially fear-making as a dissenter from the modernist left is how monolithic and angrily dismissive of other leftist positions it’s become. Criticising the likes of Bill Gates and his infernal foundation shouldn’t be that controversial a move on the left, yet it suddenly feels a bit dangerous, as if it aligns the critic with dumbass right-wing conspiracy theories about vaccine nanobots or suchlike against the supposedly scientific certainties of technocratic governance. I suspect this heat may have to do with the waning agency of people in professional elites, such as academics and journalists – people whose work and importance derives from their proximity to a centralized power whose own ability to control the political narrative and the flow of historical events is waning. Their personal politics might be more socialist or more capitalist, but their proximity to power and what it gives them, and their disdain for those who challenge it, becomes the more salient fact.

When it comes to something like the furore over fifteen-minute cities, the approach of these folks is generally to ridicule it as a deluded narrative pushed by bad faith rightwing influencers. Well, it is a deluded narrative pushed by bad faith rightwing influencers. But I think the modernist left should note what fertile ground those influencers are cultivating, and look a bit more self-critically at how much they’ve helped to fertilise it. As governmental and expert-led initiatives increasingly fail to meet the multiple challenges upon us, I fear there are real dangers in doubling down on the governmental and the expert-led.

That, actually, is something I fear more than getting lumped in dismissively with rightwing conspiracy theorists. So perhaps I should burnish my civic republican agrarian populist left libertarian quasi anarchism and steel myself for the battles to come, which I suspect I might be waging against the modernist left almost as much as the corporate right, not least because the two are increasingly indistinguishable. There are, however, other ways to play it, and I’ll come to that in my next post.

A final point. It seems that some of my allies in this fight might be people who the modernist left are anxious to wash their hands of. A look inside the front cover of my new book at those who’ve endorsed it might give a flavour. I’ll mention just one of them by name – Paul Kingsnorth. I haven’t read everything Paul’s written, and of the things I have read, I don’t agree with everything he’s said – if that’s even necessary to state, since presumably the same could be said by more or less anyone about more or less any writer.

have read Paul’s essay Against Progress: the Case for Reactionary Radicalism and I agree with almost every sentence in it. I can’t happily mobilise under the ‘reactionary’ banner given the connotations of the word – though, saying that, every word in the political lexicon has troubling connotations of one sort or another. Still, it’s as well to be aware that every politics is a reaction to something, and one of the cardinal errors of modernist politics that’s delivered us into the present mess is the conceit that it somehow isn’t reactionary.

Anyway, I’m with Paul in his idea that defending or building moral economies locally rather than trying to solve global problems at the global level with one-shot techno-fixes is the right thing to focus on. But building moral economies brings us back to the difficulties of finding common ground in the local homesteading space – difficulties so grave that I’ll have to leave it to a whole other blog post to overcome them. What I would say, channelling my reactive anti-modernist leftism, is that I’m not expecting governments, experts or public intellectuals to be of much help.

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: left agrarian populism, leftist politics, Modernism