The day after the 2015 General Election, while the votes are still being counted, Colin Tudge asks how to bring about the much needed transformation of Britain’s and the World’s farming.
It struck me during the recent shenanigans that we should found a new political party – the New Agrarian Party, aka NAP. For, as has been obvious at least since the 1960s, none of the standard, mainstream parties has ever come properly to grips with agriculture – defined what we want it to do, and how to achieve what’s needed; and very obviously, right now, Britain and the rest of the world have got it horribly wrong. Huge sections of humanity are already suffering mightily and half of all species are said to be endangered – and farming both in its neglected traditional forms and in its high tech industrial forms is implicated in all that’s going wrong, and in some cases is the principal or the sole cause.
The chief plank (as they say) in the NAP platform would be to make sure that we and the world establish the kind of farming the world really needs; yet this wouldn’t be a narrow-focus party like all the many that routinely lose their deposits. For farming stands right at the heart of all the world’s affairs. It affects everything else and is affected by everything else, and to get it right we have to think very broadly indeed. If we do get it right then all the other good things that most people care about like justice, and peace, and good health for all, and a secure and diverse and beautiful “environment”, become possible. If we get it wrong, as we are doing, then all those aspirations become well-nigh impossible, which surely is one good reason why they still seem so remote.
Thinking broadly, and deeply, means that we have to start from first principles, and the following is a shortlist of what I reckon those principles ought to be – the beginnings of the NAP manifesto. So:
What kind of society do we really want? – is the first question. What do we really feel is important? These in the end are moral issues – so what should be the basis of our morality?
Morality need not be led exclusively by religions (there are many excellent humanist-atheist moralists in the history of the world) but religion is a great driver; and it is at least interesting, as the Hindu mystic Ramakrishna pointed out, that all the world’s great religions have at their heart the same three, grand moral principles: compassion, humility, and a sense of reverence for the biosphere (a far better term than “environment”). Compassion implies of course that we give a damn about other people and other creatures. It implies too that we need to emphasize cooperation for the common good, rather than competition, which requires that we should all strive to outstrip the rest, and then enjoy our supremacy.
Yet all the mainstream parties throughout their campaigns urged us above all to compete: each of us, individually, against everybody else; and Britain as a whole against the rest of the world.
Reverence for the biosphere implies that we should not be exclusively anthropocentric. We should not treat the Earth as our personal fiefdom, and its fabric and it creatures as resources, to be turned into commodities to be sold to the highest bidder. We need to look after our own species, of course. But even in anthropocentric vein we need at least to acknowledge that we will serve the human race best by looking after the whole, and we will look after the whole most effectively if we actually care. Out-and-out anthropocentricity will not do. We need to add the biocentric, or ecocentric, dimension.
The economy isn’t just about money. All the great economists have been moralists first and economists second: Adam Smith, J S Mill, Karl Marx, Henry George, J M Keynes, J K Galbraith, Amartya Sen – the list goes on. All recognize that the economy should be our servant: its purpose is to help us to create the kind of society and the kind of world that we really want. We must shape it to our needs and aspirations. We should not, emphatically, allow it to shape us. As Keynes put the matter:
“ … the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs … and the arena of heart and head will be occupied where it belongs, or reoccupied by our real problems, the problems of life and human relations, of creation, and of behaviour and religion.”
But now we are ruled by the economy: specifically, by the dogma (it is no more than that) of the extreme and aberrant form of capitalism known as neoliberalism. We are all meant to take part in the great global market to gain the greatest market share and maximize short-term wealth. This is what all the mainstream parties have been urging us to do. To compete and maximize profit is seen as the sine qua non.
There are a few obvious snags in this but none of the mainstream parties have seen fit to discuss them. First, the means by which short-term wealth is maximized may be extremely damaging, to individual societies and to the biosphere; and damage to individual societies (it could be any of us) and to the fabric of the world itself compromises all of us. Actually, this does seem to be dimly recognized: certainly all the mainstream parties have been wont to insist that all our endeavours should be “sustainable”, although none in practice have done enough or are promising enough to make that remotely possible.
Secondly, none of the mainstream parties seems to have any very convincing idea of what we should actually do with the wealth that we achieve through our ruthless competitiveness. Should we spread it around for the common good of humanity and our fellow creatures? Or should we leave it in the hands of whichever minority manages by one means or another to get their hands on it? To judge from what has actually been happening, the mainstream parties are content with the latter. Even under the party that for historical reasons is still called Labour, the countryside was being taken over by helicopter pads and pony paddocks, as if these were the proper reward for the efforts of all society. Globally and within each nation, the rich have grown richer under neoliberalism and the poor have grown poorer, and there is nothing within the neoliberal canon that could correct that trend. Yet all the mainstream parties have embraced the neoliberal dogma.
The market has a place of course but it cannot serve the needs of humanity or of the world unless it is tailored to do so: but under the present dogma, any attempt to regulate the market for purposes that are merely moral or social is now perceived as blasphemy. This particular blasphemy has name — “socialism” – which even the Labour Party has placed on its index expurgatorius. Gordon Brown ranted to the Scots about “social justice” with the zeal of Keir Hardie but the term “socialism” never passed his lips. It has become equated with Stalinism. The freedom of the market — the right to grow rich — is equated with freedom in general. Regulation is seen as oppression, even when it is to the general benefit. Yet there is a clear alternative to the deregulated, neoliberal market which emphatically is not Stalinist and indeed was the accepted form in Britain and other western countries through most of the 20th century: the mixed economy, otherwise known as social democracy. Social democracy combines free enterprise with public ownership. The market is powered primarily by free enterprise but is nonetheless controlled for the common good.
That principle was embraced before 1980 both by traditional Labour and by the Tories – who differed only in the balance they sought to strike between private and public enterprise. There was far less difference between Nye Bevan, the traditional Labour archetype who proudly proclaimed himself a socialist, and Harold Macmillan, the Tory archetype, than there was between Bevan and the Soviet Communists, or indeed between Macmillan and the neoliberal Mrs Thatcher. Social democracy is still alive and well and in its modern form is called Economic Democracy, which adds the essential element of community ownership to the traditional public (meaning government) and private ownership. Of course, too, the economy needs to be “green”; to respect the biosphere, and operate within its limits.
But no mainstream party in the last election spoke of economic democracy, or indeed of the mixed economy. They all talked about competing in the global market. They are all neoliberals now.
Above all we want a government that is on our side. As I recall, both David Cameron and Ed Miliband were anxious to assure us that they are; but perhaps they would not have protested quite so much if there wasn’t so much room for doubt. It is hard to improve on Abraham Lincoln’s observation that “government should be of the people and for the people” but for the past 30 years or so, in Britain, it hasn’t looked that way no matter who was in power. But then, in the modern US, or at least in some of its most influential circles, Lincoln would doubtless be written off as a Commie.
Back to farming
Agriculture really is at the centre of things. All human life is built around it, even if more and more people have lost sight of that fact – including most of the majority who now live in cities, and most politicians and intellectuals. It is also the principal meeting ground of humanity as a whole with the rest of nature. Certainly, the cause of wildlife conservation is more or less dead in the water if we don’t farm in ways that are wildlife friendly, on the micro and the macro-scale.
The kind of farming that embraces all of the general principles – morality based on compassion that also takes the biosphere seriously; an economy and governance that are designed to help us create a convivial society and a flourishing biosphere – is what we are calling “Enlightened Agriculture”, aka “Real Farming”, designed expressly to provide good food for everyone without wrecking the rest of the world. Enlightened Agriculture is in turn compounded of a few key ideas that directly reflect the general principles of morality, economics, and governance: those of Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and Economic Democracy.
In practice, though, farming that follows the principles of Enlightened Agriculture is totally at odds, is diametrically opposite, to the kind that emerges when we simply apply the neoliberal dogma, as all the major parties do. For 10,000 years of experience, basic biology, and an increasing archive of hard data tell us that the goals of enlightened agriculture are best achieved in farms that are highly diverse and low input – maximally mixed and organic. This means they must be complex and so must be skills intensive (plenty of farmers) and so in general should be small to medium sized. Such farms require markets geared to their capabilities – which mainly means local markets.
But farms that are designed to maximize short-term wealth and so compete for market share in the global market should be high input with zero labour, which means they must be highly simplified (reduced to monoculture) and (to achieve economies of scale, including machines as big as a row of cottages) should be as large as possible. All this, of course, requires that oil should be available and affordable (which it should be for some time to come), and the whole system relies absolutely on high tech. Such farms require centralized markets, preferably operating on a global scale. This system of farming and marketing ensures that power is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands – the hands of giant corporates. This means too that all the wealth produced by farming is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. In practice, short-term maximization of wealth and concentration of wealth go hand in hand. Thus, the deadly duo of high tech and the global market have created an oligarchy of unprecedented power. This seems neither wise nor just? Besides, high tech industrial farming by undermining the biosphere is threatening to kill us all off.
But do we really need a new political party?
Clearly, if we are ever to introduce the kind of farming the world really needs – and most people would surely welcome if it was done properly – we need a quite different economy and a quite different approach to government; and since the present mainstream parties have spectacularly failed to grasp the agricultural nettle, it seems we need a new party, to start the whole process from scratch.
But do we really? In practice, in politics, the ratio of faffing about – meetings, rallies, door-stepping and all the rest – to real thought and action is far too high. Fundamental principles get lost in the melee. Besides, even cursory experience of Westminster reveals that the parliamentary democracy which young people are sent to war to defend doesn’t really work in the way it is supposed to. Individual MPs have almost zero influence on overall government strategy (and in most cases there is no “almost”) and government itself cannot properly be said to be in charge. As things are governments have subjected themselves to the World Trade Organization, defender of the global market. The EU too, bete noire of UKIP and of many a Tory, is in thrall to the WTO. So even if the hypothetical NAP did contrive after huge and heroic effort to install one MP and to chalk it up as a famous victory, it would make no palpable difference at all, except perhaps as PR.
Besides, although Ed Miliband and others insisted in their recent campaigns that change does not happen except through parliament, that does not seem to be true. Governments in practice follow, rather than lead. All the truly momentous changes of the past few centuries – at least those that are for the general good – have come from movements outside government, pushing the government into line. I have in mind the Trade Union movement which arose in the 19th century, and the Suffragette movement of the early 20th. Even the Beveridge report in World War II, which among other things kicked off the NHS, was inspired by pre-war social movements.
So let’s kill off the NAP before it starts and focus instead on the Agrarian Renaissance: just doing the things that need doing despite the caprices and the idiocies of government. If some future government sees the light and comes on board, that will be all to the good. But we can surely get a very long way even if that doesn’t happen.
Colin Tudge, May 8 2015: the day after the General Election in the UK.