This morning at the Rethinking Marxism conference we went to a panel on “agrifood alternatives” (F6 on your programs). The talks were interesting, and the Greek guy actually talked to the audience about what he knows rather than reading a paper, which was nice. I had to step out for the one on family farm feudalism, but Rachel, who grew up on a family farm in family farm country, said she got it wrong by reading the organization of farm labor through a formalistic egalitarian ethic rather than understanding the trade-offs, reciprocities, constraints and affordances of the cultural form ethnographically.
One of the issues for the panelists was the sustainability of independent organic farming. There seemed to be some agreement between the two practical panelists that smallholder farming was only sustainable with substantial exchange networks enabling distribution of knowledge, goods and labor. This has historically been true, of course; either holdings are large enough to integrate essential resources and functions, or smaller units have to find ways to pool. Over lunch we talked about things like churches, Granges, barn raisings, guilds, Rotary Clubs and so on as this kind of partial or comprehensive networking institution for local communities. Tocqueville’s ‘secondary powers’ and Durkheim’s ‘professional ethics and civic morals’ are examples in different contexts of the idea that there have to be ways of organizing community effort and resource between the household and the state.
There’s both some mythology and some truth to the idea that these kind of networking processes were self-organizing in traditional agrarian societies. When we say “capitalism” we are often using a shorthand to designate the kinds of networks that are created by markets. Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ points to a dynamic that is at least in principle self-organizing, albeit manipulable by savvy operators. The challenge for marxists and other critics of either system is to figure out how to make network formation more intentional and egalitarian, without losing the affordances (stability, prosperity) of the old self-organizing networks.
Off to another panel, on the economics of art.