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How farming can lead the world out of its present mess

How do we solve the dilemma – that machines make life easier, which is good, but also put people out of work, which isn’t? Colin Tudge suggests that farming at least can resolve the issue – which surely has relevance for everything else that we do.

Yesterday Ruth and I went to Blackwells to see Paul Mason launch his new book on the post-capitalist economy: Postcapitalism: a Guide to our Future (Penguin Books, 2015, £16.99). He described an economic sequence that is still unfolding before our eyes:

1: In pre-technological societies we have labour-intensive industry and agriculture: hand-looms and small farms. The labour is skilled.

2: Technology replaces the labour. The technology in practice is owned by a minority (an elite).

3: As the technology grows and becomes smarter (more and more able to anything that human beings can do, up to a point) the traditional skills (crafts) become obsolete (or so it is assumed!).  Since income is related to skill, more and more people are downgraded: either unemployed, or forced into unskilled roles.

4: Before long, all societies are awash with people who are desperate for any kind of income, willing or forced to take on jobs for very little money that their skilled parents and grandparents would have scorned. Then it becomes cheaper for the elite to employ desperate people than to build smart machines.
We can see this happening now in car-wash depots. Eight men with buckets of soapy water that need no capital outlay are replacing big, automatic, capital-intensive car-wash machines. Plenty of people are employed and so contribute to the government’s stats which show how cleverly they are bringing down unemployment, but it is not good to see people who could do much better, spending their lives washing cars.

5: In general, barring the odd workers’ cooperative, the elite continue to own and take the profit from the new gangs of workers just as they did from the machines.  So order is maintained.

Here in a nutshell is the dilemma that the Luddites faced up to – and was most famously addressed among others by John Ruskin, William Morris, Tolstoy, and Gandhi: how to strike a balance between the human need to work, and to develop valued skills, and to be properly paid, against the fact that big and sometimes nasty machines can often do the job better and quicker. (Karl Marx approached the issue from a different angle).

But also, we see writ large around us the political/ social problem that all societies have faced at least since the beginning of civilization: how to create/ ensure social justice. Do we really want a massive disproportion of wealth and privilege? Do we really want a world in which the richest 10% own 80% of the world’s wealth and the bottom 20% have less than one per cent? Or one in which the world’s top 0.1% form a super-elite, and have a huge influence over all our lives?

Some people obviously do. But most surely do not — including at least some of those who currently are very rich.

The problem of inequality is huge and has many ramifications, including moral (or course), metaphysical, and religious. But an aspect of it is the one addressed by the Luddites, Ruskin, Morris, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and now by Paul Mason; which is in effect is how to keep skills and crafts alive, and the dignity and status that goes with them, when technologies are available that can do at least a passable job (and sometimes a better job) at a 100th of the cost. How, too – given that hands-on labour even when skilled is generally pretty physical (as any chef or potter will attest) – can we devise/ provide technologies to serve the needs of craftspeople without putting them out of work? How can and why should society as a whole support traditional skills if they are more expensive than machines? And so on.

Agriculture raises all these issues in spades. But, I suggest, agriculture – and cooking and baking etc – have one huge card to play. Demonstrably, traditional, skilled farming and cooking and baking etc at its best does a far better job than its industrial replacement. It can and does produce more pleasing food with a higher nutritional value with far less damage to the biosphere and (when it is very well done) it can be just as productive, or more productive, in terms of food per unit area, than the industrial kind. Indeed it’s clear that if we continue to farm along obsessively industrial lines, marching to the drum of neoliberalism, then the prospects for the world as a whole are grim.

Thus there is an a priori argument for protecting skilled traditional farming which, perhaps, cannot be made so readily on behalf of any other form of production. That is, we may well favour hand-crafted pots or tiles or whatever over the industrial kind but we cannot deny that the industrial kind does a very good job, remarkably cheaply (and also of course requires considerable skill). But we can readily show that a traditional food chain – small mixed farms, local marketing, and traditional cooking – at its best is superior to the high-tech kind; and although we are constantly told otherwise, such short traditional food chains need not be niche and could be available to everyone. That is, the conventional defence of neoliberal-industrial agriculture – that most people would starve without it – is a straightforward untruth, at least if the alternative was given half a chance to show what it can do.

So while the government urges farmers to shed labour while pursuing the dream of profit and “growth”, and the NFU rushes to fall into line (was ever the word “union” so misapplied?) the rest of us should, as they say in Yorkshire, think on, and build the alternative.  The necessary skills and general know-how are still out there, waiting to be re-discovered and built upon; and so, too, are the economic models that could wrest control of the whole shebang from a very small minority and restore it to society at large. But we need as always to re-think from first principles and get stuck in.