Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Unlikely alliances (revisited)

Holt-Giménez: the food system's not "broken." It's just capitalist.
I had a little epiphany this morning while thinking over Eric Holt-Giménez’s keynote talk from this weekend’s NOFAMass conference

 In his wide-ranging overview of what capitalism and industrialism have done to our food systems, Holt-Giménez talked about how an unexpected alliance in England’s early industrial period helped to push back temporarily against the growing power of middle-class financiers and manufacturers. Landed gentry, who were losing their social and economic preeminence, made common cause with displaced and disgruntled farmers seeing their own status and security decline.

The farmers had been displaced largely through the processes of enclosure that big landowners themselves had set in motion earlier in the period. But as the industrial capitalist juggernaut continued to gain strength and both rich and poor with livelihoods tied up in the land realized just what they were up against, gentry with land and farmers without it found ways to join forces.

Their relationship was still very unequal—everyone had to pretend that the lord of the manor really was superior to his lowly tenant farmers. But their alliance created a space for small-scale farming to continue and even thrive as the new capitalist class was busy commodifying everything it could get its hands on. It’s a process that has unfolded in similar ways in many parts of the world that have moved toward industrial capitalism. Holt-Giménez sees that semi-protected space as one of the reasons why agriculture has often been so interestingly resistant—often in ways deemed “backward”—to that overall trajectory.

Jump to the present, of course, and most things about the mainstream food system in much of the world have now been pulled very fully into the speculative commodity market, with ongoing disastrous effects for both small and large-scale farmers. Holt-Giménez commended the organic farmers at the NOFAMass conference for holding out against that trend. But one dot he didn’t connect—and this was my epiphany—is that we’re increasingly seeing a similar kind of alliance between landed elites and landless or non-wealthy farmers, with many of the same paradoxes and tensions as the earlier version.

Interpretive center at Billings Farm, Woodstock, VT
I’ve written about this before on this blog, suggesting that contemporary non-profit organizations, historic farm sites, land trusts, and government agencies may be taking the role of those old aristocrats and gentleman farmers. These entities often provide land for young and new agrarians who are part of the current movement to reinvent and reclaim more land-centered forms of farming and living. One of the newest entries is the Agrarian Trust's FaithLands initiative, which adds faith communities to the list of landowners trying to make common cause with those who are trying to find a livelihood farming.

What seems important to pay attention to here is the potential for both division and solidarity across class lines. In many cases, the new landed gentry and the new agrarians are part of the same social strata, with similar levels of educational and cultural—if not always financial—capital. Like the old aristocrats, their influence is dwindling in many ways, a casualty of the long-running “culture wars” in the US and elsewhere.

In other cases, there are sharp distinctions of race and class—affluent white suburbanites sharing their land with impoverished immigrant farmers of color, for instance—that risk replicating the old lord-of-the-manor dynamic. There’s lots of work for the lords of the manor to do in unpacking their own layers of privilege, but also lots of opportunity to understand how these long processes of displacement and commodification have harmed and divided us and how those processes continue right into the present.

Yours truly will be speaking at Wright-Locke Farm on Aug 22
Next week I’m going to be speaking at Wright-Locke Farm in Winchester, Massachusetts, a great example of an educational farm seeking to create a role for itself in discussions about today’s food economy. Not sure if I’ll get as far as talking about landed gentry and new solidarities, but it will definitely be in the back of my mind as I explore how this particular farm’s history might help enrich those discussions!