The myth of farming

I’ve seen a quotation go around Twitter lately:

“Liberals think the poor need jobs, when really the poor need to not need jobs: but land, skills & tools to provide their own necessities.”


It’s attractive on the face of it (who doesn’t want a cottage, a garden, a pig, and a workshop?), but when unpacked a bit gets incredibly problematic. First up, we have “Liberals think”—that’s a red flag right there. It’s a polarizing political argument, and it’s an Americanized one, fairly uncritically buying into the Liberal/Conservative dichotomy consensus.

Second, we have someone telling us what “the poor” really need, and in specific opposition to what [X other non-poor group] think they need. If you need me to explain why that’s a bad thing, please leave your name & postal address in the comments.

Now, as for “jobs” balanced against “land, skills & tools to provide their own necessities”—really, this is comparing apples to porridge oats and telling us we can only have one of them. [Editorial note: I’m going to be using “us” fairly freely in this post, because I’m both one of the first-world-poor and one of the privileged trying to find solutions. I’m deliberately not talking about the global poor, because I don’t have any personal experience there.]

When I was grumbling about this on Twitter, Farah Mendlesohn summed it up: “The history of the world can be written as people trying to escape the land.”

Land is important, there’s no way to contest that. It’s almost the only place food comes from, and it’s pretty much the only form of capital you can immediately put to work and make some sort of subsistence from. On the other hand, not all land is created equal; all land requires specialist knowledge to profit from; all land requires near-constant hard physical work; and most of it is in really inconvenient locations. In addition, all land requires external inputs for sustainability: not only does your first batch of seed have to come from somewhere, but simple mathematics mean that no matter how religiously you compost you’ll need to add in some fertilizer too, to compensate for all the delicious tasty biomass you’re extracting from it. For that matter, where did your garden fork come from, and what about the next one when it breaks? We can do more than we think on a smallholding, but we can’t do everything, especially in the crucial first two years. (NB: I’m talking about arable farming here, and there’s a great deal of marginal land that isn’t suitable for that, but pastoral farming has almost all the same problems, with a larger initial investment and a longer gap between profit phases.)

So therefore, nobody will ever be free of the cash economy, and we don’t want to be—we installed it for a reason, and that reason is because it gets us useful stuff. It’s nice to think that we’ll be able to make enough money selling crops at the farmer’s market, but that’s difficult enough as it is with few-enough people trying to do it that it achieves niche-market/specialty-product status. It wouldn’t be able to compete with supermarkets. We all have crafts & hobbies that are potentially slightly monetizable, but as for fitting those in around subsistence farming… no.

In addition, land is one of the most inflexible forms of capital there is. Most of it is only fit for a few particular purposes (even discounting planning laws) and at least in the UK all of it is difficult to sell to someone who isn’t going to cover it in concrete & incomers.

So, yes: people have always wanted to escape the land, to get someone else to do the work of primary resource extraction and leverage economies of scale, whilst they get on with providing other services and having fun adventures. Which isn’t to say that farming can’t be fun… if you’re young & not disabled, or if you’re sitting pretty managing a floating workforce of young people to go out in the rain before dawn for you or shovel three hundredweight of shite. (And yes, I’ve done those, and more.)

There’s a flipside, though, which is that a particular class of people have always wanted to keep other, poorer people on the land. This isn’t just to ensure that the food (and timber, and wool, and coal, and so forth) supply keeps coming; it’s to keep society quiet, too. A more mobile society is a more informed, more restless, less deferential society—especially because mobility tends towards cities, and towards either skilled trades or crime. (Cf. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down.)

So one way to translate the original quotation would be something like this.

“The poor shouldn’t aspire to flexible lives or portfolio careers—smallholding and subsistence farming is good enough for them. I couldn’t do it myself, of course.”

Another, more generous way would be something like this.

Everyone should have access both to employment and to resources, and to the training & support they need to make the most of each. Nobody should be barred from either, or forced to remain in either.

That sounds idealistic, but it’s not; doing that would be pragmatically good for everyone. Encouraging fluidity means that the market will signal more efficiently, and fulfilling the hierarchy of needs removes a lot of the drag and friction from economic life.


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