Agriculture in Capitalism and Socialism

After discussing some possible features of a socialist society, Colin Skelly contrasts how agriculture is carried out in capitalism with how it could be transformed in socialism.

‘[The] technological and demographic developments of the last few centuries have created conditions which are here to stay. In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly – centralised productive apparatus are absolutely necessary. The time – which, looking back, seems so idyllic –  is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption’, Albert Einstein ‘Why Socialism?’, Monthly Review, May 1949).

Einstein’s view of socialism as utilising and continuing the ever more extreme division of labour prevalent in capitalist production is a logical one. As Marx pointed out, a major contradiction at the heart of capitalism is that the working class has access to a relatively decreasing proportion of the value produced by their labour (despite often also being absolutely better off materially than preceding generations). It makes complete sense then, that some socialists would see the immediate goal of our global revolution as being to enable the equalisation of the vast productive output of global labour.

Yet contrast Einstein’s view with that of William Morris in his vision of the socialist future, News From Nowhere (told as the story of how the socialist revolution had occurred by the character Old Hammond):

‘…he [Old Hammond] had a detailed record of the period of the change to the present state of things, and told us a great deal about it, and especially of that exodus of the people from the town to the country, and the gradual recovery by the town-bred people on one side, and the country-bred people on the other, of those arts of life which they had each lost; which loss, as he told us had at one time gone so far that not only was it impossible to find a carpenter or a smith in a village or a small country town, but that people in such places had even forgotten how to bake bread… He told us also that the townspeople who came into the country used to pick up the agricultural arts by carefully watching the way in which the machines worked, gathering an idea of handicraft from machinery; because at that time almost everything was done by elaborate machines used quite unintelligently by the labourers. On the other hand, the old men amongst the labourers managed to teach the younger ones gradually a little artisanship, such as the use of the saw and the plane, the work of the smithy, and so forth; for once more by that time it was as much as –  or rather, more than –  a man could do to fix an ash pole to a rake by handiwork; so that it would take a machine worth a thousand pounds, a group of workmen, and a half a day’s travelling, to do five shillings’ worth of work’ (Chapter 27, The Upper Waters).

Today, with stories abounding about the displacement of human employment with robots, such a view is highly relevant. Now we in the Socialist Party know that robots will not end our role as wage slaves – we need to do that ourselves – but with the technical possibility of displacing many forms of human labour, how would we choose work in the socialist future? Marx made a distinction between immediate and developed communism in his Critique of the Gotha Programme; socialism as established on day one would not be the same as socialism 5, 10, 20, 50 years later.

Day One

Socialism on Day One would surely involve, to borrow some phrases from Engels, the replacement of the government of persons by the administration of things and the anarchy of production in capitalism by the conscious direction of the processes of production. The working class would be in the driving seat politically and socially meaning that the productive potential of the Earth’s resources combined with human technical potential would be at our collective command. Equality would be established in terms of our individual and collective relation to the means of production. We would be at a point where we no longer worked for money wages but one in which each of us would put in our mental and physical labours to social production and each of us would take out what we need from the surplus of production destined for immediate consumption. To borrow from Marx this time, labour would be given according to the abilities of those giving it and the products of collective labour taken according to individual needs.

But the point of socialism is more than a striving for equality for its own sake. There is much more to socialism than arguments about what will be produced and how it will be distributed. In fact, equality of access to means of production is merely a means to an end, the social and political expression of a deeper need, the need, as Morris expressed it, for our labour to be ‘set free’. Marx was very clear in Capital and elsewhere, that socialism would be the conscious management of production for the first time in human history. It would give us, both as individuals and as a global society, the means to shape our own lives, ‘the pursuit of the universality of needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive powers etc., of individuals, produced in universal exchange.’  Socialism will surely not involve us going to work as normal, not even on Day One. It will surely be about more than having a say in what is produced and taking only what you need. It will involve a massive change in how you work, how you relate to what is produced. Because you wouldn’t have to work. To borrow from Marx yet again, the free development of each of us would allow the free development of all of us. In other words, although compulsion will be removed from work, our new free relation to it will ensure that, in fact, more productive work will happen. Which is why, although Einstein was right that socialism will continue to be ‘a planetary community of production and consumption’ and not a move to self-sufficiency, his vision of a highly centralised world with extreme division of labour is, for this socialist at least, further from what socialism will look like than that of William Morris.

Agriculture under capitalism

So, how might agriculture look in a socialist future? To start, we might contrast in broad strokes what global agriculture in capitalism looks like compared to a reasoned guess at what it might look like in a socialist society. Agriculture in capitalism is one dominated by production of plant and animal crops for sale in a global market in which import and export occur on a massive scale and in which more industrialised countries import food (where obesity is literally a growing problem) and less industrialised countries export food (even where populations may be malnourished). Intensive production is pervasive, trying to squeeze every last bit of plant or animal out of every square metre to the exclusion of all other considerations. Animals destined for meat are kept indoors in the smallest possible unit of space and dosed on antibiotics and given dubious food inputs in order to keep them alive and growing at the optimum rate for the earliest possible harvesting. Mechanisation is constantly developing under pressure of competition, squeezing human labour out of the process of production and making the machinery ever more complex and expensive. Production is finely specialised, individual farms concentrating on a very narrow range of plants or animals to the exclusion of all other crops. Agriculture is ecologically unsustainable, denuding soils of ecological health due to reliance on chemical fertilisers, pesticides and monocultures leading to further negative impacts on biodiversity, soil erosion and human health. Agriculture in capitalism is industrialised and exclusively rural, sharply delineated from urban life. Relationships are dependent – between food importing and exporting countries, between agrochemical companies and growers, between town and country.

Agriculture in socialism, whilst involving the widespread transfer of foodstuffs around the world, would not involve the imbalance between imports and exports that currently reflects global economic imbalance. It is likely that food production in a given geographic area would be planned to maximise the amount and variety available locally and regionally rather than dominated by one crop destined for export. An amount of surplus, perhaps of particular speciality crops, would probably be made available for exporting globally. Production would likely be more extensive than intensive as collective decisions about land use would replace the competitive pressure to maximise per unit yields of a narrow range of crops. The need for the routine dosing of animals grown for meat would disappear with the end of the compulsion to keep them in the smallest possible unit of space with the least inputs. Mixed farming would probably replace monoculture with multiple types of crops, enabling a total larger yield of crops per acre across the year. The drive for mechanisation would continue where dull, monotonous tasks were desired to be eradicated but the increased variety and range of work would make the need for machines that would run with minimal human input across of acres of monoculture a thing of the past.

Mixed farming would remove the need for reliance on chemical fertiliser inputs, replenishing soil fertility with animal wastes and, over time, restoring the ecological health of soils. The need for pesticides would be reduced as a greater range of crops would remove the risk of catastrophic crop failure and greater resilience of total crop yields. In turn, this would allow for a far greater biodiversity on farm land leading to a further drop in reliance on chemical inputs as a more balanced ecology replaced the ecological desert that is monoculture. The economic pressures leading to the rural and urban divide would cease to exist and the distinction between town and country would probably give way to a more balanced use of land, although doubtless population distribution would reflect the physical characteristics and productive potential of the land. Local, small scale and part-time production of food would probably increase because of free access to land alongside larger mixed farms. Interdependent relationships in food production would replace dependence

No one wants to grow in the way that food production is carried out in capitalism. In fact, farmers in capitalism do not want to farm in this way but are compelled to do so under the competitive pressure of the market. Freed from this burden, the range of people engaged in producing food would increase and land use patterns alter drastically. The productive potential of the land combined with the scientific and technical knowledge developed during the course of capitalist production will enable social production on a new economic basis. Consciously planned production, probably at local, regional and global levels, would replace production for the market. This planning would reflect local, regional and global needs but, as importantly, what those engaged in agriculture might want to produce and how they might choose to produce it.

COLIN SKELLY