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Another England, or Another Rome?

June 25, 2024

The present global meta-crisis seems certain to affect not just global politics but also the underlying structure of global politics in the existing system of nation-states. What’s the outlook for modern nation-states as the crisis unfolds? The question is probably too broad, and better addressed on a case by case, or at least a power bloc by power bloc, basis. I’ll aim to do that here with reference to one country and one power bloc, with the help of two recent books bearing on the issues.

Another England?

First up is Caroline Lucas’s Another England: How to Reclaim Our National Story (Hutchinson Heinemann, 2024). So the focus here is the largest and politically most powerful nation in the multi-nation state of the United Kingdom, where I live. My England.

I’ve got a lot of admiration for Lucas, who’s long ploughed a lonely furrow as the UK’s only Member of Parliament for the Green Party, and is one of the few voices of sanity in the mad world of national politics. Her book is written from the conviction that ‘progressives’ need to embrace discussions of Englishness lest it’s left to the ‘populists’ to shape the issue.

While I find over-easy distinctions between these two political p-words irksome, I suppose the return in this election season of the ghastly Nigel Farage does bolster her point. Anyway, I’ll say a bit more about progressives and populists shortly. Overall, I think the founding conviction of Lucas’s book that we need to talk about England and Englishness is reasonable. But she does kind of pre-empt the answer to the question of England in her subtitle, and when she writes, “A country without a coherent story about who and what it is can never survive and prosper” (p.9).

But what if there’s no coherent national story to reclaim? I ask this not as a ‘progressive’ who feels squeamish in talking about Englishness and would rather self-define as British, or European, or a citizen of the world. The question is more empirical. What if, at this point in world history, England (or Britain, or Europe) just can’t create a coherent story, and therefore in Lucas’s terms can’t survive or prosper as a political entity?

Modern nationalisms work best when there’s an external occupying or controlling political force to contend with beyond the boundaries of the defined nation. Hence the relative ease in constructing Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms defined against England. Nationalisms can also work as a kind of future-oriented modernisation gambit – a new nation that’s building itself and going places in the modern world. Neither of these really work in the case of contemporary England – an old, uncolonized nation of declining global influence which is now one among many facing intractable political, economic and Earth systems problems.

Lucas says a lot of sensible things in her book, but never really gets to grips specifically with what a reclaimed Englishness might be in this context. Really, I think she set herself an impossible task. She has some good suggestions for constitutional reform that might enable England to transcend the constraints of the existing British state, but she’s wisely pessimistic about the chances of them happening. She finds hope, as I do, in the way that “ordinary people can come together and rise to challenges, even when the state will not” (p.213), a point to which I’ll return. But, still, the question of a distinctive Englishness that the ‘populists’ find so easy to articulate eludes her. She discusses “two deeply rooted English instincts: one towards violent exclusion, and one towards radical inclusivity” (p.226). But these instincts are far more deeply rooted than anything that’s specifically English. If anthropologists like Christopher Boehm are to be believed, they’re the basic heritage of the entire genus Homo.

Anyway, long story short is that I don’t think Lucas succeeds in reclaiming ‘our national story’. But there’s no shame in valiant failure at such an ambitious project, and much to be learned from her book along the way. There is, however, more of a problem in a couple of areas of her analysis that I think point in radically different directions to a reclaimed Englishness.

Agrarian Questions

First, Lucas really doesn’t get much of a grip on questions of landownership, nature and farming (the latter barely discussed at all) in her two chapters on these issues.

Chapter 6 (‘English Nature’) begins by quoting George Monbiot: “One of the greatest threats to life on Earth is poetry” (p.149). Now, I know I’m not exactly impartial when it comes to Monbiot’s recent writing, but what I’ll say in favour of that quotation is that it works as a rhetorical rallying cry against the appeal of literary pastoral traditions in the context of a writer who’s singularly dedicated to eliminating livestock farming in all its forms as almost the root of all evil.

In Lucas’s hands, the quotation slips its leash – if that’s not an inappropriate metaphor – and goes rampaging across the intellectual territory she’s trying to navigate. Nature loss and the destruction of the countryside in England, she says, basically arises for cultural reasons, as per Monbiot’s remark: “The problem is our tendency to treat nature as something beautiful but separate: a bucolic realm to be viewed with a sense of whimsical nostalgia” (p.156).

No, the problem is the way we’ve got locked into maximising net present value in a global economic system geared to the overproduction of cheap agricultural commodities. And the way we get beguiled by politically dangerous soundbites that are palpably absurd when you stop and think about them. Adam Smith’s notions about ‘the invisible hand of the market’ delivering public benefit out of private self-interest remain a long way out in front in terms of the most consequentially damaging soundbite absurdities of modern times. But I fear that notions about the existential threat of poetry are gaining ground.

Lucas’s own analysis undercuts the ‘poetry’ quotation, both by identifying poetry that understands perfectly well the complexities of people’s relationships with farming and nature, and by identifying the real forces of nature destruction in the contemporary political economy. But the literary-cultural optic that she chooses prevents her from bringing this centre stage.

A related problem is her analysis of landownership. Lucas rightly points out that land in England is concentrated in too few hands, suggesting measures to distribute it more widely (I’m doubtful about the measures, while agreeing with the principle). The implication of distributing farmland more widely is presumably that there would be more farms, probably with more people working them – but Lucas never broaches this issue or discusses the implications for food production and the wider economy. She says that “large landowners dominate the fundamentals of farming” (p.142) and imputes bad agricultural practices to their self-interest. But – while an oversimplification – it would be truer to say that the fundamentals of modern farming with its emphasis on the mass production of cheap commodity crops support large-scale landownership.

This connects with Lucas’s cultural critique of English views of nature as something “beautiful but separate” that I just mentioned. England, she says, is in love with the countryside but “loves it in the form of a picture postcard … rather than as something intertwined with the basic fabric of who we are” (p.153). Well, if the countryside is to be intertwined with the basic fabric of who we are, that implies a lot of us must live and work in the countryside. Bingo. Surely, then, we should break up the large farms and move towards a small farm future with a peopled countryside?

It’s no surprise that Lucas doesn’t go there. Only nutters like me who don’t expect to be taken seriously in mainstream political discussion step outside the window of acceptable opinion and embrace such possibilities. But instead of bemoaning the elegiac tone and sense of loss in English cultural conceptions of the countryside as if these conceptions were themselves somehow to blame for its ecocidal industrialisation, it would be nice if a greater number of ‘progressive’ commentators would work with the grain of those cultural conceptions and fashion them into the sharp political critique they potentially could be – a sense of loss among people alienated from the possibilities of a productive rural life, and a sense of anger that the countryside has become largely the preserve of the rich. Over-easy recourse to dismissive language about bucolic realms and whimsical nostalgia risks making the mistake that Lucas sets out to avoid, of a perceived metropolitan elite not taking ordinary English conceptions seriously.

Can the nation hold?

Still, it’s an urban world nowadays and no doubt it could be argued – in fact, it endlessly is – that it’s unrealistic to project any substantially rural future for people in England, or most other countries.  The modern industrialisation and global market penetration that England helped pioneer has created a world of urbanism and fluid capital. Understandably, this is the assumed backdrop to Lucas’s proposals for a fairer and more generative contract between an English state and citizenry, involving things like a universal basic income, land value tax and better public services.

However, there are questions that Lucas doesn’t broach about whether the present British state (or a future English state) can adequately fund such proposals, or indeed can even maintain its stingier present commitments to its side of the bargain. Here’s where the second book I’m considering is informative.

Why Empires Fall: Rome, America and the Future of the West (Allen Lane, 2023) is co-authored by a historian of the Roman Empire, Peter Heather, and an analyst of the US-dominated imperium of the modern West, John Rapley. Their book tries to discern the prospects for the latter by applying lessons from the former’s fall.

Their argument in a nutshell is that empires ultimately generate their own demise by prompting alternative power centres. In the case of Rome, the empire’s predatory expansion was checked by increasingly organized resistance at its inner peripheries – to the east and south from the Persian empire and to the north and west from Romanized Germanic ‘barbarian’ groups. When the expansion of the Huns from the outer periphery pushed these latter groups into the lands of the western empire itself while imperial attention was focused eastwards toward the Persian threat, provincial landowning elites allied themselves with more local barbarian overlords. Rome as the imperial city and the western empire in general came to a swift end as a result, not principally through military conflict but through being rendered increasingly irrelevant – Rome remained “a sacred precinct” (p.34), but had little political or economic power.

Heather and Rapley apply a similar optic to the modern empire of the West. Predatory colonialisms directed the flow of global resources to the imperial centre, initially in Europe, but after World War II and the Bretton Woods settlement primarily to the USA, with the European powers and their offshoots as junior partners. This net transfer enabled forms of welfare capitalism with generous entitlements for ordinary people within the western imperium, like Britain’s much celebrated National Health Service. But with institutions like the NHS it is, in Heather and Rapley’s words, “vitally important to understand that this extraordinary edifice was constructed on a flow of wealth from the less-developed world to the West” (p.143).

That flow has started to dry up, not least because of better political organisation by those ‘less developed’ countries of the West’s inner periphery, mirroring their antecedents in the inner periphery of the Roman empire. In the modern case, this manifested when these countries first flexed their collective muscles at the 1999 trade talks in Seattle. But more importantly, say Heather and Rapley, the rise of China to global power status after languishing in the outer periphery with the “reinforced backwardness” (p.124) of the Mao Zedong years has called the West’s number. The economic globalization and industrial offshoring the West has practiced in the last thirty years or so, initially towards China and increasingly to other countries of the Global South, has, they argue, benefitted the West’s elites and industrial workers in its erstwhile Global South periphery, but not really ordinary people within the old imperium.

I think Heather and Rapley possibly oversimplify the ‘backwardness’ of Mao’s complex autocracy, and the ‘forwardness’ of today’s industrialism in the Global South, but are broadly right. This isn’t an original thing to say and it elides a lot of complexities, but I believe there are links here with the strange new politics around ‘progressives’ and ‘populists’ in the West and the kinds of globalism and localism they respectively favour. Aspects of progressive thought are cleaving towards state-corporate globalism, and this easily distances Western progressives from erstwhile working-class allies, and from opportunities toward economic localism. This opens the localist space up to populist politics of one kind and another, not all of which are inherently disreputable.

For Heather and Rapley, the chances of the West regaining the heights of its former power are low. The arc of its demographics and labour productivity count against it, and so do its levels of debt, which at one point they describe as “a vast Ponzi scheme” (p.147). I’d go further and say that most world systems, empires and trade-intensive economic networks – most of the rewards to work and money in the modern world, therefore – are ultimately Ponzi schemes, insecurely propped up on too much bad credit flowing from the human and natural worlds. Sooner or later they seem destined to collapse because of these inherent contradictions. Indeed, in a chapter entitled ‘Death of the nation?’ Heather and Rapley ponder this very possibility:

It would be hard to overestimate how much is at stake here. The western half of the Roman Empire collapsed into non-existence when the centre found itself left with insufficient funds to maintain its fiscal contract, and defend the interests of its tax-paying, tax-raising elites. The state revenue crisis unfolding in the modern West has different roots, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of thought to realize that this poses a threat to what has become the characteristic state form of the modern West, one which is potentially just as existential as that which undermined the Roman West in the fifth century (p.155)

They retain some hope that this outcome isn’t sealed. They argue for rapprochement between the West and China, and – like Lucas – also for a fairer distribution of benefit within Western societies between the haves and the have nots. But, most importantly, they show that there’s very little wiggle room for Western politicians to work with on this. It’s not just a case of kicking out the Tories and instituting more generous public services. There are a set of intractable underlying structural problems that make this challenging, and indeed that threaten the very possibility of ‘the nation’.

Heather and Rapley say almost nothing about climate change, energy futures, water, soil and other biophysical issues. In some ways this is a weakness, but in a sense it sharpens their point about collapse. Even neglecting these challenging issues, there may be an inherent political trajectory toward the eclipse of the nation-state in the West.

This is the context in which I discussed what I called ‘the supersedure state’ in my book A Small Farm Future – small, local, successor polities to existing nation-states like Britain or England. It’s also the context in which I discussed ruralisation in my book Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future. Despite what you may read elsewhere, I harbour no bucolic fantasy of a willing return to English village life – nor do I want to force people out of cities. The issue instead is that, as Heather and Rapley put it, “a point may well come when citizens begin to wonder what they are getting in return for their tax compliance”. And if that point does come, as with fifth century Rome, this could herald “the collapse of the entire system” (pp.159-60). In this situation, ruralisation would reflect people’s choices made for the most part in grave economic distress. I’m not convinced this situation will be avoidable for many places in the future, which is why I write about it now it in the hope that this might somehow help lessen the distress. Forewarned is forearmed.

If that future occurs where I now live, I don’t foresee ruralisation as a simple process of urban to rural migration in England, but a complex process of population displacements within emerging supersedure states that could take many forms, but will be oriented in some way to pre-existing cultural ideas and probably to the crumbling power of London, a ‘sacred precinct’ which isn’t going to disappear overnight.

So when Lucas suggests that we shouldn’t reject the idea of national identity or national stories because “some sense of collective identity is necessary to help people connect to their fellow citizens” (p.220) I think she’s right about the necessity for collective identity. But I’m not convinced ‘England’ will be the most prominent container for it in the long term.

Two emerging class conflicts

The history of the supersedure states in the immediate post-Roman period is sobering. In what’s now England, outright collapse and violence (although some argue it was a bit more complicated than that). In parts of continental Europe closer to the imperial core, alliance between Roman provincial elites and incoming barbarian warrior aristocracies paved the way for what we often gloss as ‘feudalism’, arguably locking ordinary people out of political power pretty much down to the present.

It’s not hard to see how a similar neo-feudalism might take root in a collapsing post-national England. A landlord’s society of local farmers, landowners and business elites allying with brokers of regional political power, paying nominal obeisance to London and calling the shots over a large, impoverished class of local landless or land-poor workers.

I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen. A happier possibility is that some of those local farmers, landowners and business elites, losing their wider markets and influence, will cleave to more republican and egalitarian forms of local politics, helped along by incoming refugees from the professional classes and by well-established and well-connected local working classes.

This is the context in which I agree with Lucas’s point about ordinary people coming together and rising to challenges, even when the state will not. I think they may be able to, but it’s far from a done deal. There are always those who are trying to make themselves into extraordinary people at the expense of the ordinary ones. Quite often, they succeed.

I don’t believe anyone can predict how all this will play out in different places, but the outcomes will be critical to the shape of the future, and to ordinary people’s life chances.

A second possible class conflict is suggested to me in Heather and Rapley’s interesting observation that the Northern Europe of Rome’s inner periphery had much greater resources than the Mediterranean heartlands of the empire. This ultimately told in its favour, but it required more complicated technology to coax into productivity, which took time to assemble (p.83).

Perhaps one could argue something similar about the European colonial conquest of North America. This ultimately released a vast agrarian and industrial productivity that put the USA at the centre of world affairs in the twentieth century. But we now see more clearly the damage – ecological and cultural – that these technological developments caused, leading to a more positive re-evaluation of lower-input indigenous practices both in Europe and in North America once derided for their supposed inefficiency.

For my part, I embrace that re-evaluation, which is why I tend to favour low-tech (but skilled and ecologically informed) livelihood approaches like firewood coppice over high-tech and high-energy industrial ones like ground-source heat pumps. Perhaps it doesn’t always have to be either/or. There’s a case for both/and. But all too often the local, low impact way is regarded as an impediment to high-tech, high-connectivity progress ideologies (in politics too, as well as in technology), putting it in danger of being swept away by those better connected with central political power, or with what they believe the science says (which often amounts to the same thing).

And so I discern another kind of class conflict between periphery and centre – one of local ecology versus global technology that’s superimposed upon the political conflict of collective localism versus aggregative political power. From the withy beds of the inner periphery here in Somersetshire, perhaps the day will come when I will have to take my stand against the English.

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.