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Let’s Tell It Like It Is

The Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference have now ended. Colin Tudge, closely involved with the ORFC, is recovering from post-conference depression.

Let’s tell it like it is.

We have a government that will not be content until everything is owned and run by corporates, with the big banks, too big to fail, holding the purse strings; until academe is thoroughly commodified — university curricula geared to the highest bidders, with scientists downgraded from scholars to advocates; while the senior politicians flit from board to board and honour to honour, as rich and powerful as any potentate, insulated from the unhappy world that they have themselves created by a portfolio of sinecures; the oligarchy complete and sewn up. Humanity will be dehumanized, and the Earth itself will run down – a condition that soon must reach its denouement.

It’s strange that anyone should actually want such a state of affairs – yet present policies and trends make no sense unless this is what people with power do want. It seems even stranger that academe itself does not protest, or at least not loudly enough; that it has allowed its own research budgets to be controlled by industry – no protest marches, no strikes, or nothing at least that has impinged on public consciousness; that the most august bodies of science,  notably the Royal Society, seem content to let themselves be seen as shop windows for high technology, without ever seriously asking whether that technology is truly of use to the world, as opposed to their paymasters, or what other lines they might be pursuing. It is strange that there is no serious political opposition – or at least, that all the major parties with any real chance of government all subscribe to the same grisly scenario. The complete volte-face under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of what was once called Labour, and saw itself as a social and moral crusade, remains one of the great peculiarities of modern history. Strangest of all is that we, humanity, reduced to foot-sloggers and consumers and general ciphers, struggling to make ends meet in ridiculously expensive houses and in many cases short of food, do not protest more. Revolutions break out now and again – all the time in fact – but only in other countries, but all that results is civil war. Always in recent uprisings, and usually in the past, the status quo has fought back.

 “The closure or privatization by Keith Joseph in the early days of Mrs Thatcher of most of Britain’s network of publically owned, independent research stations and the Experimental Husbandry Farms was the greatest act of state-funded vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries, yet very few people apart from the disenfranchised scientists seemed to notice.”

As always, agriculture is the paradigm, a microcosm of the whole world. All the government’s speeches or, more to the point, its policies – are aimed at commodification and top-down control. The closure or privatization by Keith Joseph in the early days of Mrs Thatcher of most of Britain’s network of publically owned, independent research stations and the Experimental Husbandry Farms was the greatest act of state-funded vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries, yet very few people apart from the disenfranchised scientists seemed to notice. Our agricultural research base was one of the jewels in our crown and we, and the world’s agriculture, will never recover from its destruction. The power of a few ignorant and zealous individuals even in an alleged democracy was, and remains, astonishing. The general strategy of the past 30 years has been single mindedly to reduce the number of farmers to the barest minimum, and then reduce it more, replacing essential workers with migrants with conveniently ambiguous rights, and to merge family farms into huge estates; and now apparently it is to sell all land to mega-agencies to hire out to corporates and to the super-rich, leaving the people who actually know how to farm, and people at large who actually give a damn, way down the pecking order. Husbandry of a delicate and complex kind is replaced by industrial chemistry and big machines, now tricked out with biotech, a series of shots in the dark compensated by more shots in the dark, creating wealth along the way but keeping that wealth in a very few hands. Scientists spend a third of their time applying for grants for the right to do the corporates’ bidding, and the mandarins of science and academe in general are apparently proud of their new role in life. The NFU, by name a farmers’ union, seems similarly satisfied with its role in what passes as progress.

Clearly, we – the world; humanity; farming – need a Renaissance; and this is the perennial theme, and indeed the raison d’etre, of the Oxford Real Farming Conference, the ORFC, which held its fifth anniversary gathering in the first week of January.

Reform has its role in the Renaissance – tweaks in the law of the kind that governments can make, can release bottlenecks. Revolution obviously has its place too although it is always a desperate measure, with a very uncertain outcome.

But Renaissance means re-birth and implies that we must start all over again, though building on whatever good things remain, and can be built upon. It must be driven from the bottom-up by people at large, truly an exercize in democracy. Experts and scholars are vital and bankers and accountants and other kinds of organizer are indispensable too but we, humanity, must never again allow them to grow into oligarchs. The Renaissance should be conceived as change in situ – akin to the metamorphosis of insects, in which a caterpillar, a grub, built for nothing but engorgement (a fine metaphor for the present economy) transforms itself from within into a butterfly.

There are three core principles. First, the Renaissance must be framed by an explicit morality; and the morality, as all the great religions maintain (and humanism too, at its best) must be rooted in compassion. Humility is vital too – not just of a personal kind (the antithesis of the oligarch mentality) but in humanity’s treatment of the rest of nature. Nature is not of our making and in the end, for all the insights of science, it is beyond our ken; and for all our fancy technology, is way beyond our control, except ad hoc, now and again.  The great religions are agreed on this too – and so too were the old Greeks, who above all emphasized the sin of hubris. Finally, in line with all this, we need respect for nature – and more; a sense not just of awe but of reverence. Moral codes on the whole (when the concept of morality is recognized at all) tend to be entirely anthropocentric; entirely orientated to the wellbeing of the human race or (worse) to one portion of it. But compassion must extend beyond humanity.  We need morality that is gaiacentric; geared to the wellbeing of the whole biosphere.

Then, crucially, we need an economy that will allow us to put these moral principles into action. An economy must be conceived not simply as a game of money, because money does not exist in isolation. It is the matrix of our lives and the medium, the mechanism, by which we translate our aspirations into action. It is essential both that we have the right aspirations, and that we have appropriate economic mechanisms.

In practice the economy must steer between two sets of constraint: morality on the one hand (what is it right to do?); and physical and ecological reality on other (what is it necessary to do, and what is it possible to do?). This general idea – an economy guided by moral and ecological principles – is akin to the idea of the “triple bottom line” which, though variously stated, says that we should measure economic success not just in terms of money (the single bottom line), but also by the effects on society (human wellbeing) and “the environment” (though “biosphere” is a far better term). But the triple bottom line idea as generally stated seems to give equal weight to the economy, to society, and to the biosphere. In truth, morality (or the wellbeing of society) and ecology (the wellbeing of the biosphere) should be regarded as bedrock principles – the twin pillars of wisdom. The economy is merely the functionary, the means to an end. It must be seen to be secondary. In the modern, hubristic, oligarchic world, it’s the other way around. The economy (the neoliberal version of capitalism) is taken to be sacrosanct, the dogma, and humanity and the biosphere as a whole are required to adjust to it. So we find people worldwide forced by their own and the global economy abandoning their families and their homes to find work wherever they can get it just to keep themselves and their families alive, though despised for their pains; and scientists of the hubristic kind promising to restore all damage to the biosphere at large, provided their research grants are big enough.

The kind of economy that in practice can meet these aims is now widely known as Economic Democracy. It is nothing like today’s neoliberal “free” market in which anything goes. It is nothing like the centralist economies of Stalin and Mao which people these days confuse, or pretend to confuse, with socialism. It employs conventional, essentially “capitalist” mechanisms – the judicious use of money with a great deal of private ownership and private enterprise – for the good both of individuals and of society and the world as a whole; businesses conceived as “social enterprises”. Private companies should be only as big as they need to be to do the job that needs doing. The overwhelming majority should be small to medium-sized. SMEs should be the norm. Mega-companies should very much be the exception – and must always be able to justify their existence on moral, social, and “environmental” grounds. We should not tolerate huge size and power just because it is powerful. That, as has been abundantly demonstrated, is a recipe for disaster.

Overall the democratic economy must be “mixed”; private business is balanced by public ownership and control of those enterprises that are of general benefit, such as the Post Office. But to this, traditional version of the mixed economy (the version recognized in the past both by traditional British socialists such as Nye Bevan, and by traditional Tories such as Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath) we should now add a third element.  Thus in Common Wealth [1], Martin Large argues that the standard bipartite mixed economy should be tripartite, like a clover-leaf: private ownership, public ownership (held in trust by government) and community ownership. Of these three, the one that has been left unstated – the community – should surely become the most powerful player. The community is perhaps the nearest that humanity can come, in practice, to democracy.  The tripartite mixed economy, with the private sector mostly small to medium-sized, summarizes economic democracy pretty well. It is radically different from the corporate-led, money-driven neoliberal economy we have now, yet there is nothing radical about the mechanism that is required. Indeed it is positively cosy. Adam Smith’s nation of small shopkeepers and Thomas Jefferson’s nation of small farmers go a long way to defining what’s needed. This has been derided as “petit-bourgeois” or “peasant”. So what? Many of the world’s greatest have come from such backgrounds, from William Blake and William Shakespeare to Gregor Mendel. A small-scale economy does not imply small-minded. Of course, many rich and high-born people have been splendid too, including St Francis or Buddha, or Alexander von Humboldt — though all of those three gave away their wealth or else used it for truly altruistic purposes. But there is no reason to suppose that concentrated wealth per se implies any special merit. Overall, economic democracy requires cooperation. Cooperation is not imposed from on high, as in Stalin’s USSR, but is entered into voluntarily. Contrary to the pseudo-darwinian dogma that has prevailed these past 150 years, cooperativeness, rather than all-against-all competition, is humanity’s preferred state.

So what in practice do we need to do, day to day? Clearly we need to take especially seriously the kinds of occupations that are — or should be — directly for the good of humanity, and of the world as a whole; teaching, medicine, building, and of course agriculture. All these pursuits (English needs a term equivalent to the French metier), must above all keep their sense of what they are for; helping children to think; keeping people in good health; creating structures of a useful and pleasing kind. The role of agriculture, so we suggest, is to “provide good food for everyone forever without wrecking the rest of the world”. Such a concept is so different from the industrial farming we have now that it requires a special term – so we call it “Enlightened Agriculture”, which is shortened to “Real Farming” as in the ORFC.

Enlightened agriculture is guided by principles of agroecology – treating each farm as an ecosystem and agriculture as a whole as a key player in the biosphere. In practice this requires farms of great diversity (basically the mixed farm) that are low-input (as nearly as possible organic); therefore complex and therefore requiring plenty of farmers (“skills-intensive”); and therefore (since there is no advantage in scale-up of complex, skills-intensive enterprises) generally small to medium-sized. Since Britain has spent the past 30 years combining its small to medium sized mixed farms into vast monocultures, and sacking the workforce, we now need massive land reform and about eight times as many farmers as we now have – say another million; plus commensurate strata of butchers, brewers, bakers and small shopkeepers to turn the farm produce into food and get it out to the people. If and when the whole system was in place and up and running, it could produce at least as much food as the industrial farms and far more than we really need, with minimum collateral damage; and since 80% of what we now spend in supermarkets goes to the chain of distributers and to the banks (who provide the capital investment, and want their interest) the price of food should certainly not go up, since that 80% could easily be reduced by 50% and more. Quite simply, at present, we are being conned. Farming based on agroecological principles would provide enough truly satisfying jobs to soak up all Britain’s under-employed under 25-year-olds; an exercize both in compassion and in economic good sense.

So what is standing in the way?

Inertia, is one answer. Incredulity is another: people have been told so often and so loudly that “there is no alternative” to the present economy and that the present devastation somehow represents progress, and that the oligarchs who have assumed control know what they are doing and have our best interests at heart, that they have come to believe it, despite the evidence of their own eyes. For of course the truth is very different. They who have assumed command, including economic ministers and bankers and professors of science and agronomy and all the rest, very often have no idea where their own machinations will lead, and sometimes don’t seem to care. They simply apply a shortlist of dogmas, essentially an algorithm, which, they seem to think, are doing or soon will soon do all that is required, mutatis mutandis. (This way of thinking is evident in a new report from the land agents, Bidwells, [2], commissioned by the Oxford Farming Conference for their own meeting this year. We will critique this in the weeks to come).

In the present world, agriculture is conceived not as the way to provide good food with special responsibility for the biosphere, and as the world’s principal employer, but simply as “a business like any other”. That would be acceptable, just about, if business was conceived in its traditional sense; a small to medium-sized enterprise with a proper sense of social responsibility. But under the neoliberal version of capitalism, business itself has been reconceived as a global cat-fight, a no-holds-barred competition to maximize short-term wealth. Common sense and common morality (no high-flown moral philosophy needed) tells us that this is intrinsically vile, and common observation shows us that it does not work – unless the purpose really is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and to hand control to the corporates, without regard to the rest of the world.

In all respects, the worldview implied by this neoliberal thinking is totally at odds with the kind of thinking needed to put the world as a whole on to an acceptable and viable footing.

To begin with, and crucially, in neoliberalism there is no imposed morality, and no recognition of ecological limits. The market itself becomes the arbiter of morals. Whatever people are prepared to pay for, is considered OK. I have heard human cloning defended on the grounds that there is a market for it – and this argument is certainly used to justify the US trade in what Charlton Heston used to call “personal side-arms”. This is what “free” as in “free market” means in reality. It has nothing to do with “free” as in the French Revolutionary “liberte”. For most of us, the freedom of the super-rich and especially of the corporates to maximize their own wealth without serious restraint, can be imprisoning. Market-led morality is a break not only with traditional politics. It is a break with the norms of all humanity through all time. Indeed it is a break with our own biology.

The second of the modern dogmas is that science and high-tech (the kind of technology that emerges from science) can solve all our problems. The concept of hubris has fallen off the radar. Yet the greatest lesson of 20th century science did not come from particle physics or from molecular biology, great as their revelations were, but from the philosophy of science. This told us beyond all discussion (though the idea of it was spelled out clearly enough in the Middle Ages) that the insights of science are always provisional, always incomplete, and always dependent on interpretation: “Science is the art of the soluble” as the great mid-20th century biologist Sir Peter Medawar put the matter.  Science cannot and must not be treated as the final arbiter of truth. It certainly cannot tell us what is right. The idea that policy should be “science led”, which politicians now use to justify commercial ventures into fracking or genetic engineering or some such, is pure, copper-bottomed, philosophical nonsense. Science has become crucial, of course. Agroecology cannot progress without excellent science, of a kind far more subtle than the sort that’s needed to produce GMOs (clever though that unquestionably is). By the same token, the high technologies that emerge from science leave us far short of omnipotence, and always will. We simply cannot assume that the next high-tech will dig us out of the hole created by the present one – though that is the present assumption. Anyone who suggests that we should exercize caution or proceed by a different route will be told that he or she is “Luddite”, or “elitist” or some such nonsense, or just “anti-science”. But the politicians and scientists who defend high-tech solutions come what may simply don’t know what science is, and what it is not, even though some of them are professors and directors and Fellows of the Royal Society. At best they are naïve. They have become commercial patsies. They have allowed science to be commodified. They should be thoroughly ashamed, but although a few scientists and techies have jumped ship of late, the mainstream flows as strongly as ever precisely because it is commercialized, and commerce means money means power.

The third of the three destructive dogmas is the one that has featured throughout this essay: the dogma of neoliberalism; an economy based entirely on a global competition for wealth, measured in money. It is the logical extension of the neoclassical economic idea that human beings are made happy by wealth, and motivated above all by the promise of it, and that the more of it they have the happier they will be, and that the all-out drive for wealth is “rational”, and that rationality, conceived as an exercize in quantification, is ipso facto good. In truth only psychopaths match the neoclassical model of the normal human being. But then, as modern studies have revealed, psychopaths rule. At least, the proportion of formally defined psychopaths among the oligarchs is far higher than in the rest of the population.

So what`s to be done?

In all walks of life we need democracy – the concept for which young men and women are sent to war, but which has seriously gone missing. It may be that we need a new political party (the Renaissance party?) since all the most powerful ones we have now seem to have lost the plot or, in the case of agriculture, never knew what the plot was in the first place. But this, surely, is not the answer. Political parties move Heaven and Earth to get to get into government but once they get there they seem to have remarkably little real power. They can join the oligarchs and help to prop up the status quo, but even US presidents, until recently billed as the most powerful people in the world, cannot stand up to the force of big commerce and big finance. In truth we need to defuse Westminster and the White House, and of course the Kremlin and all the rest: a massive and real devolution of power, out to communities, and a shift from corporate power into small businesses; the complete antithesis of what is happening now.

In this, agriculture can be the trail-blazer. It seems to be sewn up – the “vertical integration” of oil and industrial chemical companies with big-scale agriculture with Cargill-style global distribution and Tesco-style retail, with enormously inflated land-prices barring newcomers. Yet the integrated food chain is vulnerable – even by the straightforward workings of the market. Contrary to government/commercial dogma, small farms – 50 hectares and below – are useful. Hectare for hectare they should be the most productive of all and 50 hectares can easily provide food equivalent to the needs of 1000 people. Even at £25,000 per hectare most villages could buy farms of at least 10 hectares if they pooled their resources and some could easily afford a great deal more than that. Every village could buy its own farm and put the land in trust in perpetuity – and Britain’s 60 million citizens could manage a community buy-out of all of Britain’s 20 million hectares of farmland for £8000 a head: a trivial sum over a lifetime and far less than we have all spent of late in propping up collapsing banks that are clearly not fit for purpose. The ORFC alone demonstrates that there is a host of young and not-so-young people desperate to get on to the land, and although there are huge bottlenecks (including lack of training and planning policies) there would be no shortage of willing and able hands, able to put Enlightened Agriculture in place, if communities would begin to buy land and to support new farmers and markets.

All this was discussed at the ORFC and there were people there with track-records, able to show that all is possible. The speculations at the official, basically on high tech and tax-breaks for the status quo, seem simply to belong to the wrong era. They relate to the neoliberal, oligarchic, high-tech amoral world as it now is, and in that sense are “realistic”. But the status quo has no clearly stated moral base and perpetuates the fantasy that science and high tech are enabling us to override biological realities, and indeed the laws of physics. That is “realistic” only in the sense that the status quo is borrowed time, already far beyond what can be sustained, the last throes of a planet and a biosphere that have been far more tolerant than we have had a right to expect.

Renaissance is still possible. But it has to start now, and only we, people at large, Ordinary Joes, can bring it about.


[1]: Martin Large, Common Wealth. Hawthorn Press, Stroud, 2010

[2]: Opportunity Agriculture; the next decade; towards a sustainable competitive industry. Report by Bidwells Property Consultancy commissioned by the Oxford Farming Conference 2014. Sponsored by Burges Salmon, Syngenta, and Volac.