What the Australian trade deal really means

To rescue agriculture – and humanity and the natural world – we need to dig deep and go on digging, says Colin Tudge

Everyone except a few businesspeople and our government, clutching as it is at post-Brexit straws, is agreed that Britain’s new trade deal with Australia is a disaster – although of course disasters have become the norm. Most obviously, the new deal will help to kill off British agriculture – although this, to a neoliberal government bent only on maximizing and concentrating material wealth, will be no bad thing. It’s still cheaper to buy food from abroad, from countries with more sunshine, cheap labour, and no meddlesome unions and NGOs, leaving us to make money from the things we are good at, of which there are still several (eg the sale of high-tech degrees from prestigious universities).

But the deal is a disaster for Britain’s farmers, and at least very sad for all those whimsical people who see the need for home-grown food and local economies, built around agriculture, in Britain and the whole world, and who hate the grisly prospect of hyper-intensive agriculture with no free livestock and no people. More even than this, the new deal symbolizes all that has gone wrong with the modern world: the loss of a sense of values, apart from the titular value of money; the loss of any sense of the sacred – a sense that derives from religion but is shared by the non-religious; a sense of what really matters, and of how we judge what matters.

In truth, the sickness of the present world runs so deep and has so many ramifications that it is hard to know how to begin the diagnosis, let alone the cure. Its roots lie deep in all history and in the evolved psychology of human beings (“evolved” does not necessarily mean gene-based). But a proximal cause beyond doubt is the economic ideology of neoliberalism, first formulated in the 1960s by the Chicago economist Milton Friedman. The ideology was adopted by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s and she passed it on to her great chum Ronald Reagan and thence it became the global norm, as things American tend to do. Friedman was awarded a Nobel Prize for his pains – one of many reasons for feeling that the idea of the Nobel Prize is past its sell-by date. Judgement is mine, sayeth the Lord.

Neoliberalism is an offshoot of capitalism but that is not what really matters. At least, I still nurse the conceit that capitalist ideas applied decorously as part of a mixed economy can work to the world’s net benefit – “business with a conscience”, as Kenneth Clarke puts it. The key point is that economies properly conceived – including the capitalist economy – should always be seen as a servant of society and of humanity and (although this is generally forgotten) should also be good for the natural world. The economy in short should operate as if society matters, and individuals matter, and the biosphere matters. J M Keynes said much the same thing except that he omitted to mention the biosphere, which wasn’t so close to collapse in his day. In short, the economy – like all of life! – must be embedded in what some including me suggest are the bedrock principles of morality and ecology – all underpinned by the metaphysical sense of the sacred.

Many capitalists in the history of the world would surely have been very happy with this, including Adam Smith. Smith is commonly seen as “the father of modern capitalism”. His book of 1776, The Wealth of Nations, is its seminal text. But Smith was a moral philosopher before he was an economist (his Theory of Moral Sentiments dates from 1759), and he took it to be self-evident that human beings must first and foremost be moral beings. Perhaps he should have been clearer on this point, though he couldn’t have foreseen what strange turns the world would take.

But although the neoliberals are seen to be good capitalists – neoliberalism is an extrapolation of capitalism and is sometimes seen as its apotheosis – they have, as a matter of policy, or indeed of ideology, shaken off the trappings of morality, which they see as an impediment. To be fair to Milton Friedman, he did not reject moral thinking out of hand. He wasn’t, apparently, a heartless monster. He simply thought that the economy would generate more wealth if it focused single-mindedly on making money – and assumed that wealth per se must be good for us all. Mrs Thatcher famously made the same point in a television interview with Brian Walden in 1980:

“No-one would remember the good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”

To be sure, in the parable, the Samaritan installs the injured Jew in a hotel, and leaves his servant to take care of him. But as many a cleric pointed out after the Brian Walden interview, it’s the will that counts. You don’t have to be rich to exercise compassion; and, demonstrably, wealth per se does not make people more compassionate.

But the world at large and big business in particular were convinced by the arguments of Friedman via Thatcher and Reagan, or pretended to be, and neoliberalism is now the core of economic teaching in the world’s most prestigious centres of learning (Oxford, Yale, Stanford). It is taken to be the norm, or the only game in town, by most if not all of the present British cabinet. Most are too young to remember anything else. (Clarke for a time was the Father of the House but he might as well have been the great grandfather).

In practice, in the neoliberal world, wealth is supposed to be maximized by competing in the global market. Any enterprise that succeeds in the market and out-competes the rest is seen to be good, and any that fails is ipso facto bad. So the market itself becomes the moral arbiter. Other sources of conscience, like God, are seen at best to be anachronistic – although the American Christian Right has managed to convince itself that God is himself a neoliberal. Indeed they take this to be self-evident since they know no other way. Socialism is seen as the great no-no to be equated with communism and reds under the bed, a threat to the Americam way of life, to be stamped out with all possible vigour. In slightly less fanatical circles, as in Tory Britain, any alternative to the neoliberal status quo is said to be “unrealistic”. Indeed – since it must be good to maximize wealth – it is irresponsible to allow anything else to get in the way. Wildlife conservation is for long-haired layabouts. Ecology is for second-rate life scientists who aren’t clever enough to do molecular biology and get a proper job with Syngenta.

In agriculture, so long as oil is affordable and available, wealth is linked to production. Agricultural output is of course limited by the law of diminishing returns including the steady loss of soil structure and hence of potential fertility but in general, the more you produce the more you have to sell, and the more the less productive producers are shoved to the sidelines. Hence the unrestrained – “free”! – global market pushes the world inexorably towards monopoly. There are laws against monopoly but the largest traders in the form of transnational corporates have the wealth and power to override or circumvent the law, whether made by national governments or by international agencies and some national leaders (vide Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch) welcome monopoly so long as it is on their side.

So what’s to be done? In general, if we seriously care about the future of humanity and of the natural world, then we need to take agriculture very seriously indeed. It is at the heart of all the world’s affairs. But governments like ours, and that of the US and Australia and Russia and most other modern countries of the kind that are seen to be modern, do not. However they bill themselves all the most powerful countries are neoliberal and they treat agriculture as “a business like any other”, designed not to provide us all with good food and to look after the natural world but to feed commodities into the global market and compete for maximum profit.

To take agriculture seriously means that we must run it (like everything else) within the guidelines of morality and ecology, with (more or less) equal concern for society, for individuals, and for the biosphere at large. To this end we need farming that is rooted in the ideas of agroecology (treat all farms as ecosystems) and of food sovereignty (every society should have control of its own food supply) and, as I have argued many a time and Chris Smaje spells out very eloquently in Small Farm Futures (2020) this (in general) is best achieved by polycultural (mixed), low-input (organic) farms that perforce are complex and so must be skills-intensive and so are best left small- to medium-sized, and are geared primarily to local markets. This of course is the precise opposite of the kind of farming that maximizes short-term wealth, and so is required by neoliberal big business and supported (with taxpayers’ money) by neoliberal governments like ours. Ostensibly modern (though in truth anachronistic) big-time “Neoliberal-Industrial” agriculture leads us towards high-input monocultures with minimum to zero labour, all on the largest possible scale, and designed to produce commodity crops and livestock that are intended to make maximum profits on the global market. In the neoliberal world, profit trumps all. The biosphere – known as “the environment” – gets a sniff only insofar as it can be seen as “natural capital”, and can be made profitable. In Britain right now the countryside is made to turn a profit by building very expensive houses in places with a nice view, to be occupied at weekends by the sensible people who have focused on making money, leaving the locals on their average incomes to sink or swim, while local farming languishes in the spurious causes of modernity and “progress”.

So what’s to be done? Well, to begin with, nothing can be put to rights ad hoc. We need to replace neoliberal agriculture with what I have been calling “Enlightened Agriculture”, aka “Real Farming”, rooted in the principles and methods of agroecology and food sovereignty – or indeed, more broadly, in the bedrock principles of ecology and morality. But no big and worthwhile change can be achieved in isolation. We need an economy that can support Real Farming – an economy that is truly geared to the wellbeing of humanity and of the world, which means to the principles of morality and ecology. To achieve this, we need a government that sees itself truly as the servant of humanity and of the world.

To bring this about we need a different mindset.

To start with we need to re-think what we mean by morality. That is: we need a morality that is rooted in the universal principles of compassion, humility, and true concern for the natural world — very different from the “utilitarian” approach which dates from the 18th century and at least in its present, corrupted form, leads us to equate goodness with expediency and indeed with cost-effectiveness. We need a different approach to science. Now science is seen – at least by governments like ours and academics who have taken the commercial shilling – simply as the route to high-tech, which in turn is seen as a means to wealth. Yet science should be seen, as was the norm in the 17th century, primarily as an exercise in aesthetics and metaphysics; a spiritual exercise indeed. Metaphysics itself asks what are often called “the ultimate questions”: what is the universe really like; what are the roots of goodness; how do we know what’s true; and, “how come?” But metaphysics as an independent subject has gone missing. As a matter of urgency, it needs to be re-instated – brought back to centre-stage. In short: even to begin to put the world to rights we need to develop a new form of education; one that brings the ideas that really matter into the public realm, to help people at large to address the world’s real problems. Specifically, we need to replace the mountebanks, ignoramuses, and sometimes out-and-out gangsters who now control the world’s centres of power with people who can properly be called wise. (A key problem, of course, is that people who can be called wise aren’t usually interested in power. But that difficulty can be overcome, as some other societies have achieved in the past. It’s all a question of priorities).

All this lies behind the new Australian trade deal. It is a disaster in its own right but it is also the culmination of centuries of inadequate thinking which over the past few decades has emerged as a grisly alliance of uncritical technophilia (high tech, generously funded, will solve all our problems) and neoliberalism (the compulsion to maximize material wealth). Neoliberalism and uncritical technophilia between them, the hallmarks of governments like ours that consider themselves to be modern, are a greater threat by far to the future of the world than any mere pandemic.

I discuss all this in my latest book, The Great Re-Think, published by Pari Publishing (Tuscany): and we are seeking to explore and develop the ideas in our still embryonic but rapidly expanding College for Real Farming and Food Culture.