Let a Thousand Fiefdoms Bloom

Chris Smaje’s Small Farm Future

November 25, 2020

We are now so familiar with the ways that capital tears into, degrades, and destroys the natural world that in his new book, Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies of Self-Provisioning Agricultural Diversity and a Shred Earth, Chris Smaje spends just one chapter recounting them. He gives us ten in total, including the climate crisis, soil degradation, unsustainable levels of energy consumption, and growth-based economics. Rightly, Smaje doesn’t think that capitalism can solve these crises so he dedicates the rest of his book outlining an alternative: a world structured around local, ecologically regenerative, peasant-based farming.

Smaje is a smallholder himself, based in the UK. Small Farm Future draws from this experience and his previous work as a sociologist to outline an ambitious and at times deeply troubling pastoralist future. The book is one of several in recent years that have tried to imagine desirable alternatives to capitalism, from fully automated luxury communism, to Green New Deals, to eco-socialism, and degrowth futures. But unlike fully automated luxury communists, Smaje doesn’t believe that a techno-fix to the climate crisis is on the horizon. And unlike proponents of the Green New Deal, he doesn’t think that a raft of policies can be implemented in time to avoid the worst effects of climate breakdown. In fact, Smaje takes for granted that cascading ecological crises, mass climate induced migration, and civilizational collapse are all but unavoidable.

Smaje doesn’t associate looming ecological and civilizational collapse with capitalism as such but with globalized capitalism. The problem isn’t class exploitation or private property but global and unaccountable capital flows, an international division of labor that subordinates the producers of the Third World to the consumer demands of the First, and the voracious mining of “energetic stocks” — mainly fossil fuels — rather than the sustainable skimming of “energetic flows” like solar, wind and water. Smaje’s solution is a reversal of the problem. Instead of globalized production, we need local and accountable economies. Instead of mining energetic stocks, we need to skim ecological flows. This means shifting from labor-saving but fossil fuel intensive farming and industry to labor-intensive but low or zero carbon farming and pre-industrial production.

As the book’s title suggests, Smaje thinks that small privately-owned family farms hold the key to this transition:

Small farms play a key role in creating local autonomies from global flows of capital; they involve a degree of self-provisioning at the individual, household or local level; they employ labor-intensive techniques applied more often by the family or household laborers than salaried workers, they adjust their activities to sustain the ecological base in their locality that underpins their productivity; and they tend to operate in a de-commodifying (but not necessarily un-commodified) way compared to large farms. (9)

The small farms Smaje has in mind are something much more radical than your average farmers market or Community Supported Agriculture program. In Smaje’s future rather than visiting your local shop to buy locally sourced produce “you or your descendants are trying to figure out how to furnish your needs from your locality, probably by furnishing many of them yourself, because you have few other choices” (9).

Smaje imagines the world you’d be furnishing your needs in would look “a lot like the diffuse rural world of premodern agriculture” (34). In this future, the landscape has been transformed into a patchwork of small privately owned or rented farms, independently pursuing a largely self-sufficient existence. In the UK — the country that serves as the basis for most of Small Farm Future’s examples — the uplands and other less productive regions are left to re-wild. Metropolitan centers are for the most part vacated in favor of market towns where smallholders sell their surplus produce to each other or to local merchants. Traditional craftspeople return to their workshops to produce the necessities of life utilizing locally produced materials. Material needs, not consumer demands, dominate the marketplace. It’s a world where horses are more likely to be found in the streets than cars, where computers and smartphones are largely gone but unmissed and where we are closer to the source of our food, if we aren’t immediately producing it ourselves.

Smaje knows that this would be a “profound change from the present” for those of us in the imperialist core but he claims that it is “not an unimaginable one from a global perspective” (161). Whereas today’s labor is both alienating and ecologically destructive, Smaje thinks that labor-intensive smallholder farming could serve as a “source of fulfilling, low-carbon employment in a crisis wracked society” (162). In the UK he proposes that seven million people could be gainfully employed as peasants contributing to the production of the country’s food and calculates that this labor, plus urban farms and home gardens, would be enough to ensure year-round food sovereignty for the country.

Smaje’s small farm future has its upsides. His commitment to food sovereignty means that the fields and workers of the Third World are freed from the consumer demands of the First. His promotion of regenerative, deindustrialized and labor-intensive agriculture militates against the use of fossil fuels, pesticides and fertilizers, all of which are major ecological and atmospheric pollutants today. And significantly, by orienting production to meet social and ecological needs Smaje joins proponents of degrowth and eco-socialism in imagining an economy freed from the ecological impossibility of endless capital accumulation.


Small Farms, Big Misgivings

For all these reasons and more we are sympathetic to Smaje’s project. One of us is a tenant, agroecological farmer in south west Wales, the other a political theorist. Both of us, to borrow Colin Duncan’s phrase, think it’s crucial to “recenter” agriculture in our political struggles and imaginaries. As Smaje argues convincingly, for all the talk of how we have become an information-based or digital society, we haven’t yet found ways to reproduce ourselves that don’t depend on the land and labor of farmers, the majority of whom are smallholders and women from the Third World. Small Farm Future’s attention to this essential truth is a welcome reprieve from the urban-centralism that characterizes much of the First World left’s thinking today.

But as much as we agree with Smaje about the need to recenter agriculture, we have some big misgivings about his small farm future. In this review we emphasize our political disagreements. We do this in part because we agree with a lot of what Smaje has to say about the need for local, low-carbon, labor-intensive regenerative agriculture. These sections of Small Farm Future are lucid, informative, and deserving of close attention. But we mainly focus on politics because we worry that Smaje’s proposals in this area steer us further away from a world of human and non-human flourishing. This is especially important because on the face of it Smaje describes a progressive, local and powering alterative to the impersonal and oppressive forces of global capitalism. It is a future that can seem especially appealing in our world of alienated labor, unaccountable authority, and ecological collapse, so it is perhaps no surprise that Smaje’s book comes with glowing recommendations from big names on the left including Vandana Shiva, Giorgos Kallis, and Richard Heinberg. Or that it has received many positive reviews from eco-socialists and regenerative agriculturalists. But scratch beneath the surface and Small Farm Future reveals a disturbing vision of the future defined by exploitation, domination, and patriarchy.

As much as we agree with Smaje about the need to recenter agriculture, we have some big misgivings about his small farm future.

1. Petit Bourgeois Political Economy

Smaje claims that an important part of his project in Small Farm Future is to “sketch an adequate political economy” for a peasant-based future (247). But unfortunately the sketch he provides is disappointingly hazy, inconsistent and underdeveloped. Ideas that are floated in one chapter are quickly undermined in the next. We are told, for example, that this future is “post-capitalist” but capital still freely circulates and poses a threat to his small farm future. Even the idea that the book provides an “adequate” political economy is retracted towards the end when Smaje pivots to describing his project as a “scoping exercise” and as something “vaguer” than a developed political program (255). Making sense of Smaje’s political economy is made harder still by his rhetorical tic of saying that something is “probably,” “likely” or has been the case “historically” without providing evidence or citation:

the idea of a small farm future is currently marginal to mainstream thought, it’s probably the best future now available for most of humanity (10)

I can’t pursue that debate here, but it seems likely that in a small farm future there would be more local artisanal production supportive of the agricultural economy and pursued alongside it. (203)

what secure property rights in farmland have generally meant historically is the opportunity for well-being and a complete life. (175)

in this kind of supersedure situation, large-scale landholding by wealthy absentee landowners would probably come to seem unattractive (240)

Probably. But maybe not.

Smaje is of course writing speculatively about an uncertain future and so some conjecture will be necessary. But what many of his likely’s and probably’s do is circumvent some of the thornier issues raised by his political economy while suppressing visions of the future that oppose Smaje’s romantic estimations of private property, individualism and patriarchy. What repeatedly drops from view for Smaje is a future as we would like to see it: collective, feminist, decolonized and eco-communist. A future that we think is still just as “likely” as any other.

This lack of clarity around Smaje’s political economy is made worse by the fact that Small Farm Future shows little awareness of a set of discipline-defining debates that took place in critical agrarian studies and development studies in the 1970s and 1980s regarding the question of petty commodity production and the so-called “peasant economy.” Neither does the book take the time to situate itself in relation to the primary texts that inform these debates: Kautsky’s The Agrarian Question, Lenin’s The Agrarian Question in Russia, and Chayanov’s The Theory of the Peasant Economy.

This is surprising — even disappointing for us as followers of his work — because Smaje’s well-regarded blog is full of posts that show a rich understanding of agrarian political economy. Yet without a proper grounding in these debates Small Farm Future feels like a step backwards for Smaje. The book often stumbles through the thicket of over a century of agrarian political economy, retreading well-worn paths, and assuming what often needed to be explained.

What is clear is that Smaje’s political economy is constructed around a romanticized image of a “reconstituted peasantry” (255). The family farms Smaje envisions reproduce themselves to some extent through the unwaged labor of their household members. What they produce in excess of their needs is then sold, as commodities, to other farms, landlords, rural artisans and merchants. In turn, peasant farmers buy the resources, tools and fabrics that they are unable to produce on-farm.

Smaje thinks that the result is a peasant-based, local, and ecologically sustainable future. We think Smaje’s political economy suspends us somewhere between petit bourgeois utopia and neo-feudal dystopia. Smaje believes that as the climate crisis escalates, states as we know them will “probably” collapse leading to the “likely” emergence of “supersedure states.” The idea of a “supersedure state” is borrowed from the world of beekeeping. Usually, when worker bees determine that a queen bee is declining in productivity they will create special queen cells and raise a new one. Smaje likens this to political “succession” in the human world. A new monarch. A general election. A supersedure situation occurs when a colony’s queen bee dies unexpectedly. When this happens worker bees improvise a new queen out of worker bee cells. Queens raised in this way are usually weaker but they are preferable to no queen at all. Transposing this into the human world Smaje imagines that supersedure states, small improvised autonomies, will form out of necessity as the power of states to control their territory declines. Such supersedure states, he thinks, will function as republics where disagreements are resolved by “rational debate” (171). Within the rural areas of these supersedure states sit privately owned or rented commodity producing farms, a parasitic landlord class and artisanal merchants.

If this sounds a bit like the fiefdoms of medieval Britain or the city-states of Feudal Italy, that’s because it is. The world of Smaje’s Small Farm Future looks more like the one that Machiavelli knew, replete with “republics or principalities,” than the world as we know it today. But whereas peasants have historically been a dominated class, in Smaje’s future they will somehow be granted as much power as their landlords, who will benignly extract a lower rent from their tenants than they otherwise could out of a sense of civic duty:

landowners might find that serving their local society and selling land or renting it on favorable terms to small-scale tenants is the most attractive possibility. This, after all, is what many of their medieval and early modern forebears did. (240)

They might. But they probably won’t . Either way in Smaje’s small farm future landlords will still “reap where they never sowed.”

We think this scenario is both patently exploitative and anti-ecological. Smaje, however, claims that private property, capital and class divisions can be made compatible with an ecologically regenerative “post-capitalist” future by putting in place a series of measures to contain capital’s contradictions. In keeping with the book’s petit bourgeois outlook the principal contradiction Smaje is concerned with isn’t the fundamental one between capital and waged-labor but the tendency for capital to accrue in the hands of a select few, eventually creating an unfairly advantaged monopoly holding class who seek future accumulation at the expense of both nature and the rest of society (188, 202). To avoid this, Smaje proposes “a world in which rural capital (but not necessarily rural capitalism[!]) is created at relatively local levels by commercial or semi-commercial farmers working alongside local industries and merchants in ways that serve a modest local prosperity” (61).

Perhaps the best way to make sense of this solution and the measures Smaje implements to achieve it is through Lenin’s theory of peasant differentiation. In The Agrarian Question in Russia Lenin observed how capital’s penetration into the Russian countryside had increasingly differentiated the peasantry into three distinct classes. Poor peasants, who struggled to meet the requirements of subsistence or “simple reproduction” and who were thus susceptible to proletarianization. Middle peasants, who could meet the needs of simple reproduction. And rich peasants, who were able to meet the needs of simple reproduction and engage in expanded reproduction by buying land or hiring waged-labor from among the poor or middle peasants.

If this sounds a bit like the fiefdoms of medieval Britain or the city-states of Feudal Italy, that’s because it is.

Though the encroachment of capital into Russia’s countryside hadn’t restructured long-standing relations of production, Lenin argued that it had fundamentally changed how we ought to understand the peasantry’s economic activity. Since the Russian peasantry — like the peasants in Smaje’s small farm future — could no longer reproduce themselves outside the relations of capitalist commodity production it was no longer accurate to speak of them as a homogenous peasant class. They had become “petty commodity producers.” The essential feature of this class is that it is neither a landless proletariat nor a capitalist class but rather both laborer and capitalist. A patriarchal farm can rely on the unwaged labor of the household and the means of production it has at its disposal to accumulate capital. Lenin argued that as some peasant farms succeed and as others fail, whether through competition, poor harvests, ill health, or something else, a tendency towards larger farms owned by rich peasants emerges.

Smaje is aware of this tendency towards peasant differentiation. He has even discussed it in detail on his blog. Yet he does not mention it in Small Farm Future. Even so, the book’s political economy appears to be structured around putting a halt to peasant differentiation by ensuring that the majority of farmers are middle peasants engaged in ecologically sustainable simple reproduction and a limited amount of commodity production to provide for non-farming populations.

To achieve this Smaje has to find a way to “limit the possibilities to accrue liquid capital” (188). His first solution is to impose a “heavy gift or estate tax” with the aim of stopping the generational transfer of land and wealth. “In this way”, Smaje explains, “farmland can circulate back into the market at affordable prices” (188). He combines this with development banks that will “accumulate rural capital renewably generated from local land and provide loans to young farmers to buy farms — loans that could realistically be paid off over the course of a farming career” (188).

But a loan, however favorable its conditions, is still a system of indebtedness, a way to discipline a workforce, to tie them to the land and ensure that they participate in what Chayanov called “self-exploitation.” And landlords, however much they might be taxed, are still parasitic upon the laboring classes. Hence, even though Smaje’s peasants are partially self-sufficient, they are still subject to the “impersonal domination” of the market — they must still sell commodities to survive — which makes it all but impossible to contain capital’s expansionary drive or the tendency towards peasant differentiation. One of the most obvious issues with Smaje’s future is that it lacks a system of collective welfare or support for those who perhaps cannot repay their loans or afford their rent due to sickness, poor harvests, or the ricocheting effects of ecological collapse. Since Smaje imagines that peasants will have little to no access to employment beyond their farm, this poses a major problem. Sooner or later in Smaje’s small farm future some among the peasantry will find themselves unable to meet the needs of simple reproduction without selling either their land or their labor to neighboring peasants and landlords. These peasants will descend into the poor peasant class or rural proletariat. Those who buy their labor or profit from their indebtedness will ascend into the rich peasant or rural capitalist class.

At times, Smaje is candid enough to admit that something like this might happen:

The complicating factor is that land can be a high-value capital asset, which could make landowners want to hang onto it. It’s possible that a landowner class might form in alliance with the local or centralized state, imposing quasi-feudal domination and Ricardian rent on relatively powerless, underemployed, and landless citizens and newcomers. (240)

More than just “possible” we think this is the most “likely” outcome of Smaje’s small farm future.

Smaje’s only protection against inadvertently reinventing feudalism is the presence of a “painstakingly assembled public sphere,” though assembled by who is an issue we’ll get to later. Smaje’s public sphere is “a space of rational debate available to all where decisions arise out of agreement, not by social standing” (171). A lot rests on the public sphere. Throughout the book it functions as something of a deus ex machina. When Smaje’s argument encounters a problem, he explains that it will be resolved through a system of public debate modelled after the republican tradition. Among other things the public sphere is credited with acting as a “safeguard against village hierarchy” (206), as the primary way supersedure states will defend themselves from attack by the military force of waning nation states (242), as protection against international extractive capital (244), and as a place where “individual human rights hold their own against mere power or status” (240).

In a section on the family that will be discussed in detail below, it is the public sphere that defends against “a turn to patriarchy and other forms of domination” since women will have access to the “concepts of the public sphere, formal equality, individualism, and individual rights” (172). The concepts. In our view this is a painfully naïve, liberal understanding of rights and debate that forgets the existence of real, material, differences in power and influence. Marx’s assessment of rights in his Critique of the Gotha Program applies here. The equal right to be heard in such circumstances is the right to inequality and domination.

Smaje knows this criticism is heading his way. In a preemptive response he claims that “left-wing movements have often been suspicious of the petit bourgeois world of small-scale farmers, shopkeepers and tradespeople not because of its poverty or simplicity but because of its acquisitiveness — small-scale farming as small-town capitalism.” Smaje says that this “misses the point that bakers and farmers aren’t intrinsically any one kind of economic agent. Everything depends on how people connect with wider economic, political and cultural circuits” (197). Only as should by now be clear our criticisms do not miss the importance of wider social relations. They are based on them. Situating economic agents within their broader social relations is the sine qua non of Marxist political economy, the very definition of a class analysis. As Smaje knows.

This brings us back to the start of our critique of Smaje’s political economy. Its haziness. Its inconsistency. Its lack of thorough engagement with those of us on the left who share his desire to recenter agriculture in our post-capitalist imaginaries but who do not accept that private property, landlords, self-exploitation and indebtedness are the way to get there.


2. Patriarchal Production

Smaje claims that “agrarian societies have found that kin usually make the best farmworkers, this is because they have the temperament born of intimate residence and have a shared long-term stake in the well-being of the farm that requires no day to day reinforcement” (168). He contrasts this to non-kin-based collective farming and finds the latter wanting. Though “getting things done with other people can certainly nourish the soul,” he writes, “it’s also hard work, often involving extensive negotiations that probably count against it unless the task really can’t be achieved alone…it’s easier to sow and harvest a bed of carrots by yourself than by committee” (168). Probably.

This suspicion of non-kin-based collective farming and veneration of the familial is a persistent theme throughout Small Farm Future. It’s a suspicion that does not resonate with our experience of collective farming. One of us lives and works on a successful farm managed cooperatively by five individuals. None of the five had prior farming experience but by sharing and discussing tasks they have trained themselves. Though everyone on the farm can do any task required of them and thus provide essential cover for each other, over time each has found a niche. This allows for a degree of specialization and a greater overall skillset. Our experience shows that there is simply no need to plant carrots by committee on a well-organized collective farm and that there is nothing unique about the family unit that ensures a “long-term stake in the well-being of the farm.” It is worth emphasizing that our experience is far from exceptional. Collective farming on common land is just as frequently practiced through history as the family farms Smaje champions, if not more so.

Why, then, does Smaje defend the family farm? We think this has less to do with the supposed difficulties of farming in common than it does with wanting to maintain a specific set of social relations: the patriarchal family unit or what Lenin referred to as “patriarchal production.”

In a disappointingly short chapter on family and household divisions of labor Smaje admits that the risk of “patriarchal domination” poses a “major dilemma” to his small farm future (169). Both historically and today the quality of life of women on family farms has too often been decided for them by a male head of house. Their access to land, their income, even their bodily autonomy, is frequently not theirs to decide but their father’s, husband’s, or brother’s.

In so-called “developing countries” only 10 to 20 precent of landowners are women, despite the fact that women do the majority of the world’s agricultural labor. In Zambia, as Sam Moyo explains, over 74 percent of women depend on their family links to gain access to land. In India, where, as Bina Agarwal tells us, access to land is similarly structured along patriarchal lines, women “divorced or deserted by their husbands can be found working as agricultural laborers on the farms of their brothers” or else they are “left destitute and forced to seek wage work or even beg for survival.” In the UK, women frequently see themselves as “farm helpers,” and must take on multiple roles to enable the patrilineal reproduction of the farm, without access to equal status, rights or remuneration. Smaje is therefore entirely right to worry that unless he can find ways to free household farms from patriarchal domination the case for his small farm future “collapses” (169).

Unfortunately, Smaje doesn’t build a persuasive case. Here again we want to follow the thread of his argument closely since the patriarchal structures he defends are hidden behind a patina of concern for women’s empowerment. Yet at every turn it’s not women’s autonomy he defends but patriarchal production.

Smaje begins by proposing that we dispense with the idea that women’s liberation rests upon their access to waged-labor within a global capitalist economy. He acknowledges that off-farm work can increase women’s autonomy but worries that this wrongly assumes a “Western path of development is the only route for female liberation.” Smaje also imagines that opportunities for off-farm work are “likely to narrow” in a world wracked by cascading ecological crises, making it “necessary to follow a harder road: seeking resources for female autonomy on the farm, in the absence of salvation from without” (170).

His next step is to engage in a superficial reading of Agarwal’s A Field of One’s Own, a work in which Agarwal proposes that rights to land and property are the most direct way to empower women in rural communities. For Smaje, this is not a sustainable solution since “inasmuch as [women] producers can farm as they please and monetize their products, so the viability of the self-limiting farm household orientated to the local ecological base and its flows comes under threat” (170). As we saw above, Smaje does not take issue with the monetization of farm products as such. What he takes issue with here is that granting women access to land outside of the patriarchal family farm jeopardizes the patriarchal family farm.

From Smaje’s perspective what’s needed is a way to defend women’s autonomy on the farm. The first part of his solution is to propose a “shift in cultural consciousness” so that women’s work is no longer “disparaged as mere housewifery compared to ‘real’ work in the wider world” (171). Instead, our culture should emphasize “both women and men competently but modestly furnishing their households through ‘husbandry’,” a word whose etymology Smaje reminds us means to “build, dwell or cultivate” (171).

Tellingly, Smaje expresses no desire to combat traditionally gendered divisions of labor as part of this shift in cultural consciousness. There is no discussion of how care for children and the elderly, cooking, cleaning, or household upkeep is traditionally gendered as “women’s work.” There is no engagement with social reproduction theory or for that matter with any feminist literature on household divisions of labor. Instead, we are told to respect women’s work like we would any other as part of a supposedly “gender-neutral plea for husbandwomen and husbandmen to build a house, dwell in it and cultivate around it” (171).

The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that Smaje is uninterested in the material question of how to dismantle gendered divisions of labor. It is enough for him that “women’s work” is appreciated and valued for what it is.

To his credit, Smaje does acknowledge that a shift in cultural attitudes is not enough to defend women from patriarchal domination and so he also suggests building “institutional safeguards against coercion within the family” (171). But here his argument gets rather fuzzy. His first safeguard is a limitation on the size of family units and the prohibition of what he calls the “corporate” or “extended” family (171). According to Smaje, in larger families individuals are often “subordinated to a wider family name” with women in particular forced into “elaborate codes of conduct concerning honor, shame, and control” that entrenches “their subordination to male kin and to men in general.” We can’t help but hear a ring of prejudice against non-Western cultures in Smaje’s concerns about large families and his vague evocations of “honor, shame, and control.” Nor can we help but think that this proposal to restrict family sizes is both draconian and risks cutting women off from their larger support networks.

The second safeguard Smaje proposes is his deus ex machina: a public sphere. According to Smaje, the public sphere can give people access to state protection from non-state actors (like abusive family members) while also protecting discriminated groups from the state, which he cautions has a long history of being used as an instrument of patriarchal domination and control. For Smaje, this means that there is both an “upside to the public sphere and visibility to the central state in checking abuses that might otherwise remain hidden” and a “downside” in being exposed to the “glare of the state” (172). Smaje argues that it is concern about that latter that has meant:

modern identity politics has often been suspicious of allying with governments. Access to decent wages and, crucially, to property, rather than to government social policy, is seen as a safer bulwark against oppression. This brings us back to the need for people of all kinds for a “recaptured garden,” or a field of their own in the rural-agrarian situations to come. (172)

We do not know what Smaje means by “modern identity politics,” but we take from this passage that he believes private property is the best way to protect the interests of oppressed groups, including women, from a potentially oppressive state. Given that Smaje has already ruled out granting women direct access to land in his discussion of Agawal’s work, we must assume that he means the patriarchal family farm and that through a circuitous route we are presented with the patriarchal family farm as the solution to its own problems.

But there is a larger issue with Smaje’s discussion of women’s empowerment. Small Farm Future runs to over 200 pages but only eight discuss gender relations on the farm. Across those eight pages women and LGBTQ+ are only ever treated as potential victims in need of protection and never as subjects or agents with their own volitions and desires. Children and the elderly are not even mentioned. Women’s liberation for Smaje means contributing “competently but modestly” to the reproduction of the patriarchal family farm (171). There is no room in this vision for women or LGBTQ+ to freely express themselves beyond the work of reproducing the farm, no chance to freely associate, to explore new interests or passions….to organize against their oppression. No room, in other words, to flourish. We do not think that this is a vision of women’s empowerment. We saw earlier that Smaje uses the etymology of “husbandry” to defend his politics so it is worth remembering, as Engels taught us, that the word famulus means “domestic slave” while the word familia  means “the total number of slaves belonging to one man.”


3. Disaster Feudalism

As Marxists we believe that we must look for the contours of an eco-communist future in struggles against the capitalist present. We find inspiration in the struggles and agrarian experiments of La Via Campesina, The Landworkers’ Alliance, The Red Nation’s Red Deal, Cooperation Jackson,  Sylvanaqua Farms, Soul Fire Farms, Undod, Cuban agroecology, and urban farming projects. We believe that it is from these movements and others like them that the seeds of a worldwide revolution against capitalism will have to spring.

Smaje’s recurrent criticisms of modernity, globalism, and progress seem ripe for far-right appropriation.

In contrast, throughout Small Farm Future, Smaje demonstrates a deep-felt cynicism about the potential for a collective human subject to change the course of history. Writing from an avowedly anti-communist perspective he admonishes a strawman idea of communism for its commitment to progress, a word that he often places in scare quotes to emphasize his distrust but that in truth is far too abstract to capture a concrete politics of any kind. Smaje tries to validate his cynicism by beginning the final section of his book “Towards a Small Farm Future” with a quote from the Weimar-era aristocrat and colonialist, Otto Von Bismarck: “Man cannot control the current of events. He can only float with them and steer.” This is a sentiment that we do not entirely disagree with. As Marx had also argued, the working classes make history but they do not make it under conditions of their own choosing. In Smaje’s hands, however, Bismarck’s words become a mantra of resignation.

Smaje interprets this quote from Bismarck with the help of David Fleming’s genocidal argument that “the task…is not about wrestling with the controls of economics to force it in the direction of degrowth, but about getting ready for the moment when the coming climacteric does the heavy work of degrowth for us” (255). The task, in other words, is to wait until ecological collapse brings the economy down with it at the low, low, cost of incalculable human and non-human suffering, death and destruction.

Smaje says that he’s “more sympathetic” to this argument “than [he] once was.” “Afterall, if even so expert a helmsman as the ‘Iron Chancellor’ Otto Von Bismarck thought that humans could only float with the current of events, then I’m happy not to try wrestling overly with economic controls” (256). But Bismarck clearly does not think this. His words and actions demonstrate that he thought — unlike the Smaje of Small Farm Future — that we can steer the course of events, that we can intervene, that we can shape the course of history. Why else refer to Bismarck as a helmsman at all?

This symptomatic misrepresentation points to Smaje’s inability to ground his small farm future in the struggles of the present; whether they are the struggles of the working classes or their oppressors. Without a basis in the material conditions of struggle, without a commitment to the idea of a collective subject intervening in the course of history, Smaje is forced to describe his small farm future as little more than a “likely future adaptation” to ecological and societal collapse (166). He outsources what should be the political work of building a better future to the apolitical task of waiting for civilization as we know it to collapse. The result is a kind of disaster feudalism, a literal worst-case scenario for millions, if not billions, of people.

To make matters worse, by omitting revolutionary — or even “progressive” politics — Smaje’s recurrent criticisms of modernity, globalism, and progress seem ripe for far-right appropriation. Those who benefit the most from the world he depicts are those who have benefitted the most from the world we want to leave behind. While those who have faced the sharp end of the globalized system of capital accumulation Smaje rightly abhors — indigenous, black, LGBTQ+, and disabled communities — are hardly considered. As for those who have been forced into the cities of the world in search of low-paying, often precarious, often dangerous, and frequently miserable work, Smaje mostly ignores them. Recall that Smaje imagines that only seven million peasants will be needed to secure food sovereignty in the UK. And yet he says nothing about the lives of the remaining 76 million that he calculates will live in Britain by 2050. From reading Small Farm Future one is left with the impression that none of this matters to Smaje as long as he can have his “three acres and a cow,” his rugged, possessive, patriarchal small farm future.

And therein lies the dark genius of Smaje’s petit bourgeois dystopia/utopia. Whereas most imagine societal collapse to coincide with the end of capitalism, Smaje dares to imagine capitalism surviving its own death. It’s a resurrected capitalism. Smaller, more local, more intimate than we are accustomed to but capitalism nevertheless. In looming ecological catastrophe Smaje finds the chance for petit-bourgeois redemption. An opportunity to wash away the sins of modernity and be reborn into a world where the petty commodity producer is unharried by the Amazons, Walmarts and Monsantos of this world. Where their walled-in acres are sacrosanct. Where the authority of landlords and patriarchs goes unquestioned. And where the flow of history as we know it, as the history of collective class struggle, finally comes to an end because people are content to eke out a living rather than to truly live:

The ideal citizen [of my small farm future] spends a good part of their day striving for flourishing and livelihood. The next day, they do the same again, probably in the same way. There’s no higher political purpose. (267)

This is an unusual definition of flourishing. A patriarchal monotony. A post-political vision of the laborer, tied to the land, constrained by market forces, indebtedness, and the individualized labor of the patriarchal family farm.

We share Smaje’s desire to abolish capitalism as we know it, to recenter agriculture, to dare to imagine worlds beyond our own. We find encouragement and inspiration in his elaboration of low-input, labor-intensive, carbon neutral farming. We have been nourished for years by his thought-provoking contributions to left ecological debate. But it’s because of this that we find ourselves troubled and confused by the patriarchal disaster feudalist politics of Small Farm Future. The task for us remains that of abolishing capital and the wage-relation, collectivizing and democratically managing regenerative agriculture at mixed scales and fighting for a world in which humans and non-humans alike can truly flourish.

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