Town and country

The third and final part of our series on farming under capitalism and in a post-capitalist society of common ownership.

The cessation of capitalism will signify, amongst other things, the elimination of the enormous structural waste associated with this system. In other words, the elimination of all those numerous, often explicitly money-based, occupations that, whilst being required by (indeed, indispensable to) capitalism, do not in themselves perform any socially useful function whatsoever. They do not contribute in any meaningful way to the enhancement of human well-being. Minimally, we are talking about at least half (though some estimates are significantly higher) of the current workforce today no longer being required to do the work they currently do. In short, the replacement of capitalism by a post-capitalist society will liberate vast amounts of labour (and material resources) for socially useful production.

The implications of this for the future of farming are obvious. There can be little doubt that some of this labour will find its way into the agricultural sector of our future-post capitalist society. With the very idea of private ownership of the means of production (in this case, of agricultural land) becoming redundant, the break-up of large farms into more manageable and human-scale farming units will become possible. Along with this, the opportunities for farm work will be greatly expanded. Farms will then be able to more flexibly adapt their methods of farming to the new circumstances they find themselves in, unencumbered by the need to realise a profit through the sale of their produce.

In particular, the influx of more labour into this sector will enable it to transition to a more organically based and environmentally friendly, but also a more knowledge-based and productive, mode of farming. That, in turn, will transform the very nature of agricultural work into something more mentally stimulating and emotionally rewarding. The point being that all of these different facets of this farming model would be closely interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

It is quite true that, to an extent, organic farming, for instance is already being practised today. Nevertheless, it will always struggle to make inroads in an industry driven and dominated by the ruthless pursuit of profit at all costs. The tendency today is for agricultural land to become increasingly concentrated in fewer hands and this is what fundamentally militates against the large-scale application of organic methods even if it does not rule it out completely.

Organic farming, on a small scale, is arguably feasible as a way of supplying some niche market by charging premium prices to mainly better-off consumers who can afford to buy quality food – unlike, for instance, the growing numbers of people now dependent on food banks. This is not to dismiss organic farming as such – if we are able to consume authentically organic food (or, better still, grow our own) then so much the better. However, we need to be aware how the concept itself has all too often been cynically harnessed to the cause of ‘greenwashing’ capitalism.

The illusion is insidiously fostered that a gentler, kinder and more environmentally benign version of capitalism is entirely within our grasp. As consumers we are encouraged to believe that we are quite capable of bringing it into existence simply by dint of exercising our will and opening up our wallets. No need to politically or collectively organise to overthrow a fundamentally rotten system; it can be induced to reform itself through the informed decisions of individual consumers.

Here, yet again, we see how the individualistic ideology that capitalism nurtures in us surreptitiously shapes the political agenda in ways that shore up the very system itself. In the meantime, the marketing of our food continues unabated and, with it, the studied manipulation of images that all too often, belie the ugly reality of food production today: foodstuffs laced with chemicals or pumped with hormones, battery hens suffering under a cruel regime of factory farming and caged Scottish salmon being consumed alive by sea lice in what are euphemistically called ‘fish farms’.

As the saying goes, we are what we eat. Changing society must involve, amongst other things, changing how we go about producing the food that we eat. This is something most of us have little or no control over at the present time. For more and more of us our links with the land have long been severed in a world of exploding megacities. Huge, powerful corporations absolutely dominate each and every stage in the food supply chain – from the field to the supermarket shelf. But, apart from this, you cannot hope to change society – the way things are done today – without having some larger vision of what you would want to put it in its place. This unfortunately is what is conspicuously lacking today.

Utopian though such a vision might seem from the vantage point today of our (apparent) collective helplessness and political impotence, it is indispensable to reaching some kind of coherent understanding of this world we live in — not to mention, deriving some sense of direction about the way forward. For the direction in which society is currently heading is clearly not one that is conducive to human happiness and well-being.

Part of that vision of an alternative future has to do with the kind of spatial reorganisation of human society that will be required to ensure the sustainable production of food at a level adequate to meet the nutritional needs of humanity in general. Concretely speaking, this hinges to some extent on overcoming or breaking down the distinction between the town and the countryside and addressing the vexed question of how to achieve some kind of suitable or healthy balance between them.

The built environment that is our towns and cities represents the embodied labour of many generations long gone – an enormous monument to human ingenuity. It is a legacy we should embrace, not abandon. Abandoning it would be as preposterous as it would be scandalously wasteful.

Healing the rift between the town and countryside has long been an aspirational goal of utopian thought. However, to be truly realisable and effective, it has to entail a two-way movement – not just some one-way ‘back to the land’ exodus from the towns precipitated by the break-up of large agricultural estates in the countryside itself or the implementation of measures to make farming more attractive and stimulating. We also need to be thinking in terms of ‘bringing the countryside into the towns’ themselves, so to speak, – through the reinvigoration and greening of urban land blighted by dereliction at the hands or urban speculators or by inappropriate and uninspiring urban ‘development’.


Next article: Story time: mystery and meaning ⮞

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