Spudman meets the physiocrats…

 
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I promised you a respite from ecomodernism and I plan to keep my word. So, tempting though it is to essay a response to Suzy Waldman’s critical Tweets about my last blog post, I shall keep my powder dry for now. At least Suzy raises some genuinely interesting issues: proletarianization, what we want for our kids, and the economic fortunes of Burkina Faso. But if I write anything else about ecomodernism just now, I fear I’ll be sucked into a wormhole from which I shall never escape and spend the rest of my days muttering half-intelligible concatenations of phrases concerning the sparing of land, the budgeting of carbon, the salvation of cetaceans and the harvesting of cherries.

God forbid. So instead I plan to work my way towards answering Suzy more obliquely through Small Farm Future’s autumn seminar series in which I’m going to tell you about my pigs and my potatoes, say something about soil microbial life and – a related area – describe the nature of state formation and the peasant labour process. Then, let’s see now, I want to muse about meat, offer a brief analysis of the history of western economic thought, consider agricultural improvement in 19th century Scotland, and then expand the focus a bit to review the history of the entire world over the last nine million years. Meanwhile, in other news, the SFF office has received an interesting comment about our work on perennial grain crops from intermediate wheatgrass breeder Doug Cattani, and also an interesting comment on ‘land sparing’ arguments from agroecologist Jahi Chappell.

Anyway, all in all we have a packed autumn programme ahead of us – so do please get in, sit down, fasten your seatbelt and hold on. To save time, I may have to piggy-back some of the topics outlined above onto other ones. Indeed, let’s try that now. So today we’ll look at what my potato harvest can teach us about the history of western economic thought.

Farming on the micro-scale that I do, strict economic considerations suggest that I should probably devote myself largely to growing fancy salad leaves to garnish the plates of wealthy restaurant patrons, and then write my screeds about how small-scale farming can solve world hunger as a purely theoretical pursuit. However, some years ago my alter ego Spudmantook me aside and pointed out there’s something of a contradiction there. Since then I’ve always tried to grow a little bit of a staple crop every year, usually potatoes, without beating myself up too much about the amount I grow in the face of the pressures for my farm to make money.

This year, my efforts have been especially desultory, as I’ve felt the need to prioritize other things. I bought 50kg of seed potatoes (25kg of earlies and 25kg of main crop), and cleared a total harvest of about 350kg. After so brazenly claiming in recent posts that small-scale farmers can produce higher per hectare yields, I’ve got to admit that this is an embarrassingly poor effort on my part. Naturally, I have an impressive suite of excuses at my command: in view of other priorities and the unpromising economics of small-scale commercial potato production, I didn’t sufficiently fertilise, ridge, weed or irrigate the crop during the hot, dry summer, and then the shaft on my vintage potato spinner gave out mid-harvest, leaving me with a more-troublesome-than-it-seems winter repair job and, most likely, more potatoes still in the ground than would otherwise have been the case, which will no doubt volunteer their presence in future years. Perennial crops, eh – dontcha just love ‘em!

Still, despite so grievously neglecting my charges, by putting my 50kg of seed potatoes in the ground in the spring, I managed by season’s end a sevenfold return on my investment. And that is a pretty magical result, is it not? So, at any rate, thought François Quesnay, whose Tableau économique of 1759 laid the foundations for the school of economic thought known as physiocracy. The physiocrats considered labour devoted to agriculture productive, and labour devoted to industry sterile. Perhaps one could say that the story of my potato harvest endorses their view: put a potato in the ground and it will reward you seven times over or more, put a steel shaft on a potato spinner and the damn thing just breaks. Eventually. Quesnay was also a physician, and perhaps a patriot: his metaphor of the economy was that of a corporeal body sustained by the circulation of things.

Now, I admit there are a number of additional complexities here, but this is a blog post, not a treatise on economic history, OK? Well now, there’s an idea! Let’s try to put the physiocrats into the broader context of the history of western economic thought, as typically conveyed in the ‘historical background’ paragraphs of standard economic textbooks. Or at least as might be conveyed in a first draft of such a textbook, before professional self-censorship intrudes.

So, first up, let’s hear it for the physiocrats. Their theories of ‘productive’ agriculture and ‘sterile’ manufacture were laughably misguided – show me the agrarian economy that can anywhere near match the economic productivity of an industrial one – but at least they were among the first to identify a distinctive phenomenon that we can call ‘the economy’, thus paving the way for the prodigious advances achieved by later economists. Indeed, the physiocrats were quickly superseded by Adam Smith, who gets the nod as the founding father of economics through his identification of something called the market, and not silly old agriculture, as the fundamental unit of analysis in the discipline. True, he had some funny ideas about agriculture and domestic trade being the ‘natural’ focus of economic development, in contrast to the ‘unnatural’ path taken in Europe by way of foreign trade, but every hero has an Achilles heel, right?

I suppose we now need to mention one Thomas Robert Malthus in our survey – not, heaven forbid, for his thoughts on population growth outstripping its resource base, which has turned out to be wrong and has earned Malthus a richly-deserved posthumous notoriety down to the present. I mean, OK, those thoughts exerted a big influence on Charles Darwin, whose theory of natural selection has earned him richly-deserved posthumous celebration down to the present. But the thing is, natural selection doesn’t really apply to humans because we’ve transcended nature through our technological knowhow, as proven by the fact there’ve been no major global Malthusian crises in the whole 200 years since he was writing, which is a very long time evolutionarily speaking. Anyway, the real importance of Malthus was in noticing that the tendency of markets to cycle between booms and busts suggests they don’t always work quite as smoothly as Smith conjectured – and that the job of economics is therefore to try and ensure they do.

Then there’s Ricardo, whose comparative advantage over Smith was his theory of comparative advantage, suggesting pace Smith that foreign trade is important after all. And also his theory of rent, suggesting pace the physiocrats that land rents arose from relative differences in land quality and not from the absolute bounty of land itself. Oh, and don’t forget Bentham, with his ridiculous useful quantification of abstraction and his illegitimately aggregative clever reduction of human values to the fungible, all wrapped up in that appalling famous phrase: ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.

We should now perhaps mention some dissident visionaries, like Marx, Chayanov and Veblen. Actually, nah, let’s not. Much more important was the marginalist revolution of the late 19th century associated with the likes of Marshall and Jevons (he of Jevons paradox fame, paradoxically). This pushed Ricardo’s relativization a step further and established the modus operandi of neoclassical economics, which considers the level of prices, outputs and incomes relative to supply and demand. And that pretty much brings us into the era of modern economics, which has merely refined those basic themes of markets, trade, prices and outputs in the context of a modern global world market system that has taken relativization so far that our food prices tumble ever-downwards, and our complex fiscal instruments enable risk to be so relativized that even the poorest people in the developed western economies can now afford to take out sub-prime mortgages safely on modest homes, a privilege that will hopefully soon extend to poor people in the rapidly-urbanizing developing economies. And let us now end our history lesson there, circa 2007, for every history requires its end-point. Sure, some other stuff has happened since, but that’s history, eh? One damn thing after another.

But seriously now, what I find interesting about the historical trajectory that I’ve sketched above with such impartial scholarly acuity is that most of the early economists displayed strong concerns – perhaps you could call them anxieties – about agriculture and its attendant issues: the limits of productivity, the relations between humanity and nature, the effects of land quality and so on. This was gradually sundered from the economic package as we approach the present, until the discipline seemed to become almost wholly absorbed with the matter of price signals.

Another way of framing that historical trajectory in a single phrase might be ‘out of the absolute, the relative’. Indeed, you could probably say that of the social sciences in general. Social scientists of most varieties like to inhabit relations more than things. Not a bad instinct – holism over reductionism, relationality over essentialism, and so on. But I’d argue we now need something of a rebalancing towards the absolute. Not entirely – abandoning the vantage point of the relative is usually a quick route into the intellectual morass, which has swallowed up any number of ‘back to nature’ philosophies and provided endless point-scoring opportunities for those who like to stand on the apparently safe shore of the relative with the death-curse of ‘Malthusianism’ or ‘Stoicism’ on their lips. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if there were a contemporary economics that properly wrestled with the problem of agriculture and environment in the way that the classical economists did?

True, there have been some noble efforts in recent times. The work of people like Georgescu-Roegen and Daly founded ecological economics and placed the presentiments of the physiocrats into the more precise language of energy and entropy. But somehow their efforts haven’t displaced the mainstream metaphor of markets chasing net present value as the central fact of modern life, or of Smith’s myth of the ‘invisible hand’. And though you could probably argue plausibly that this is because Smith’s myth suits the suits who run the world, I think there’s more to it than that. I think the metaphors of market, debt and money so deeply condition our thought, even among those of us inclined to reject them, that we’ve yet to find the cultural language we need to steer our way with sufficient intellectual subtlety between the Scylla of natural absolutism and the Charybdis of net present value, price signals, market efficiency and all the rest.

Smith was remarkably prescient in describing the logic of an economic order that, in 1776 when his Wealth of Nations was published, had scarcely even begun to take shape. The tragedy of the economic discipline he helped found is that it’s been so successful at creating self-fulfilling prophecies, making the world over in the image of its distorted models of it. What we need now is a Smith for our times, someone who can breathe new life into the physiocrats’ metaphor of the biota as a body corporate, with a currency of energy and life, without forgetting what we’ve learned in the interim about the relational character of the (human) world. Which is why (memo to self) I want to remain open to people articulating alternative ‘back to nature’ philosophies of natural absolutes, however dubious I find them intellectually. They’re identifying a real problem in contemporary culture, which we will only overcome if we ruminate on it from many angles. In the meantime, I plan to curate the investment bestowed me by the sun in the form of my potato harvest, to fix the darned potato spinner, and to meditate some more on the economy of water and nitrogen as well as of relative human values.
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