subsistence agriculture

One of the most memorable passages in political philosophy, quoted by many who do not know the source, is Thomas Hobbes’ description of life in a state of nature:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”


For Hobbes, the state of nature was no idyllic peaceable kingdom, but the arena of the war of all against all — a violent vision of anarchy at odds with many subsequent romanticized visions of anarchy.

There has always been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with civilization that leads to a romantic and idyllic of life without civilization — Freud devoted a famous essay to this, Civilization and its Discontents, and I dedicated a significant portion of my essay “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” to what I call the hostile argument against civilization. During the Enlightenment Rousseau was perhaps the most famous critic of civilization who celebrated the state of nature, but not everyone was convinced:

“We were favoured with Sir James Colquhoun’s coach to convey us in the evening to Cameron, the seat of commissary Smollet. Our satisfaction of finding ourselves again in a comfortable carriage was very great. We had a pleasing conviction of the commodiousness of civilization, and heartily laughed at the ravings of those absurd visionaries who have attempted to persuade us of the superior advantages of a state of nature.”

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D: Including a Journal of His Tour to the Hebrides – Vol. 2, NEW YORK: DERBY & JACKSON, 119 NASSAU STREET, 1859, p. 449

From the point of view of indoor plumbing and modern conveniences, we might today look at the condition of Boswell and Johnson as being little raised above the state of nature, but even with all our creature comforts the seductive idea of a simpler life that is better because it is simpler continues to haunt us. The appeal is not universal, but some are so enthralled by the idea that they can only conceive of the good as the destruction of the civilized order that we have built up over the past ten thousand years. I discussed the source of this some time ago in Fear of the Future, in which I argued that, “apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided… While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.”

Kenneth Clark added his voice to those who question the pretensions to preferring a state of nature to civilization:

“People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilization. I doubt that they have given it a long enough trial… they are bored by civilization; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater. Quite apart from the discomforts and privations, there was no escape from it. Very restricted company, no books, no light after dark, no hope.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York, et al.: Harper & Row, 1969, p. 7

A distinction should be made among the detractors of civilization, between those who look upon a violent convulsion in which civilization is brought to an end as a necessary purging of contemporary wickedness, and those who look rather to the peaceable kingdom they believe will follow after the work of the destruction of civilization is completed; these are two very different motives for welcoming the end of civilization.

Those who wish to fight in a cosmic war in order to be part of the grand work of destroying our wicked civilization — whether it be judged wicked for its wealth, its lack of religious piety, its industrialization, its pollution, its tolerance of individuals who where not tolerated in traditional regimes, or any other reason — have a distinct set of motivations from those who want to inhabit the post-apocalyptic peaceable kingdom, and I will not address these former individuals or their motivations at present, as I have dealt with them elsewhere (e.g., in Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor).

For the rest, for those who look forward to the peaceable kingdom of a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial world in which human beings will live in harmony with nature (not, presumably, the nature of Hobbes, but rather the nature of Rousseau), what satisfactions will they expect to derive from the restoration of a subsistence economy lacking the creature comforts that we today take for granted, like flushing toilets, hot showers, clean clothes, and our choice of foods made available from the entire world?

Looking around the surrounding world of nature, what will natural man — the noble savage — do in order to seek satisfaction? He may attend to his bodily needs, using his mind and his hands to build shelter, sew clothing, hunt or gather food, and perhaps preserve some part of that food for a future time when the supply of food is less certain. When his bodily needs are met, he may choose to amuse himself, making up stories, or singing, perhaps using his mind and hands again to create a musical instrument or a painting or a piece of sculpture.

In short, natural man in search of satisfaction will begin to transform himself into unnatural man, and thus begin the long process of creating civilization. In the midst of the plenitude of nature, natural man draws upon his own resources to go beyond nature. In other words, he creates civilization as a natural response to his desires. This process, iterated over generations, gives us the traditions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

Recently in David Hume and Scientific Civilization I quoted from an essay by Susanne K. Langer, “Scientific Civilization and Cultural Crisis.” Here is the passage I quoted:

“There is no denying that the spearhead of this ruthless social revolution is something we all… honor and desire: science. Science is the source and the pacemaker of this modern civilization which is sweeping away a whole world of cultural values.”

Of this scientific civilization Langer further observed:

“It is only rather recently that we are realizing what it has destroyed, and also the very grave fact that in its advance it is still destroying many things of undoubted and irreplaceable value — social orders of rank and status built up by a long national or local history, religious faith and its institutions, arts supported by solid and good traditions, ways of life in which people have long felt secure and useful. Such losses are not to be taken lightly.”

It would be an interesting exercise to parse the above quote in detail, as contains so many interesting assumptions, but I will desist for the time being, except to note that the “social orders of rank and status built up by a long national or local history” closely resemble the traditions described alike by Marx and Edmund Burke (and which I discussed in Globalization and Marxism).

For now, I only want to observe that the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy — really, a subsistence economy for the great mass of humanity, and a luxury economy for the privileged few, since agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations invariably take the form of a mass of peasantry working the land and living hand-to-mouth while elite culture is reserved for the small fraction of the population with the leisure for art and literacy — are precisely those cultural institutions slowly built up over the course of ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, and rudely brought to an end by scientific civilization.

I do not doubt that, given enough time, humanity could be re-acculturated to these institutions, but I suspect that this process would require generations to become effective, and that individuals acculturated in the world today would largely reject these satisfactions of life specific to a subsistence economy — frequent religious festivals, occasional spectacular entertainments (theater, jousts, processions, etc.), etc. — as insufficient compensation for the loss of modern plumbing and the re-imposition of heavy physical labor.

Of course, what I have elsewhere called neo-agriculturalism (in Another Future: The New Agriculturalism) need not necessarily be so technologically rudimentary. I recently considered something like this in Ash Wednesday and Identity Politics, in which I quoted from one of my unpublished manuscripts:

Let us suppose, merely for our private amusement, that human civilization lasts long enough for the pendulum to swing completely, and that our civilization is slowly transformed into its opposite, from its present decadence into renewed, post-modern medievalism. This new epoch of medievalism would be an age with technology superior to our own and a more complete record of the past than we possess. Would these medievals look back upon us as the Golden Age, or upon the Middle Ages as the lost Golden Age? Would they nod while reading the Scholastics and react with horror to the existential excesses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Would they want to preserve our pagan learning, or would they feel entirely justified in extirpating it? Upon such twists of fate do our efforts enjoy success or come to grief.

Perhaps the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy might be rendered more acceptable if we could retain some of our creature comforts. But supposing the transition could be made with plumbing intact but our intellectual horizons severely constrained, would this be any better? If the great mass were kept more or less comfortable but deprived of the possibility of expanding their horizons intellectually, and living in a society without expanding intellectual horizons, would this be easier to accept than a straightforward return to idyllic primitivism? This is a question that could only possibly be settled by a social experiment on a civilizational scale. And it suggests another experiment: suppose we preserve the open intellectual horizon but take away the creature comforts — how would this fare as a form of social organization? And of any of these social experiments, we could ask whether they really would restore us to some sense of the presumed satisfactions of a subsistence economy, or whether this has become strictly unimaginable to us.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .



More than a year ago I formulated the idea of pastoralization as a possible development of macro-historical significance, and as a possible successor form of civilization to present-day industrial-technological civilization. In that first formulation I wrote:

If humanity withdrew into sustainable cities with their own ability to grow produce, the gradually depopulated countryside would be free to be returned to wilderness or to be at the disposal of pastoralists, or both. Wild game would be available in the wilderness for those who wanted to hunt, thus satisfying both a social need and dietary need, while nomadic pastoralists cold drive their herds seasonally from one self-sustaining city to another, selling a portion of their animals for slaughter in return for goods that they could not produce given their nomadic way of life.

I cited the emergence (actually, the re-emergence) of urban agriculture and the demographic trend toward increasing urbanization as driving forces in the scenario of pastoralization. The idea of urban agriculture is also important in another macro-historical scenario, neo-agriculturalism. Pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism are only distinct by degrees, and many of the features of each may co-exist.

Two recent books make suggestive arguments that point toward the ongoing strategic trends of urbanization and urban agriculture, which, if they become the dominant strategic trends in the future, will issue in something like pastoralization or neo-agriculturalism. These two books are $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner and Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser (which latter I wrote about in Cities: The Constructive Kluge).

Glaeser’s book isn’t “brilliant” (as some reviews said) nor is he a mere shill (as some reviews seem to suggest). It is probably sufficient to read the first and last chapters and skip the anecdote the fills most of the book; you can pick up most of his ideas this way and miss very little. Really, all you need to know is the full title, since the book is concerned to demonstrate the thesis that cities make us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier. One need not agree with every aspect of this argument to still agree with many or most of them, and to see that a clear case can be made for urbanization.

In regard to thinking in terms of “making a case for urbanization” we are clearly thinking in political terms rather than historical terms, and this seems to be Glaeser’s orientation. He is critical of policies that have had the unintended result of harming cities, and, since he thinks that cities are the best thing to come along in the human experience, harming cities is tantamount to engaging in self-harm. The limitations of thinking in terms of policy appear when we begin to think in terms of spans of time beyond that of a single human lifespan, and across which greater spans of time unintended consequences tend to swamp intended consequences. This is the difference between urbanization as a political idea and urbanization as an historical idea (conceived parallel to the distinction I made between globalization as a political idea and globalization as an historical idea).

If one is hesitant to fully subscribe to a rationally argued case for the city, there is, alternatively, the economic case for the city, and this is what Christopher Steiner argues in his book. He makes the case that steadily rising prices for gasoline will have far-reaching consequences for the structure of contemporary life, and these changes will have radical consequences for urban, suburban, and rural life. Although both Glaeser and Steiner argue that cities are environmentally and economically more sustainable than suburban, village, or rural life, Glaeser argues additionally that cities are a good thing; Steiner, on the contrary, argues that cities are the inevitable thing because they make more environmental economic sense. Again, this illustrates the difference between urbanism as political idea and urbanism as historical idea.

Steiner is at times almost apocalyptic in making his point, but, I think, justifiably so:

“There will be plenty of small towns that simply do not make the transition from a satellite living on cheap oil to a town that’s half self-sustaining and populated by people who not only prefer a small town life, but also are stringently loyal to their small town and are willing to sacrifice for their neighbors, their town, and their way of life. The hamlets that don’t survive, like the Wal-Marts who fall ahead of them, will be home only to ghosts, gusts, and a reclaiming Mother Nature.”

Christopher Steiner, $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, 2010, p. 151

This is very close to what I wrote about pastoralization, although I would argue further that “reclaiming mother nature” would include those individuals who would also choose to return to Mother Nature rather than live the superfantastic urban life that Edward Glaeser praises (although does not live, since he admits in the book that he lives in the suburbs). Even while high gasoline costs could make the automobile obsolete, and that part of industrial-technical civilization based upon the automobile also obsolete, there will be other technologies (like electric cars) which can be substituted. One could also, however, substitute those robust and durable technologies that preceded the automobile. Horses could be grazed in the abandoned spaces imagined by Steiner, and used for transportation by those who opt out of urban concentrations.

One way to define the difference between my closely related scenarios of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism is how the land freed by abandoned exurbs and rural depopulation will be put to use. If these lands are put to use in settled agriculture along a quasi-nineteenth century model, then the result will be neo-agriculturalism. If these lands are put to use (to the extent that they are “used” at all) for pastoralism, then we have the development of pastoralization. The neo-agricultural paradigm would likely converge upon (or, rather, return to) human societies exemplifying the agricultural macabre, while the pastoralization paradigm, with its mixture of extremely dense urbanism and nomadic pastoralism would produce a very different kind of society (or, rather, two societies), and it is difficult to say what this would be other than a unprecedented synthesis of urbanism and nomadism.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


In Three Futures I considered a trio of possible developments based upon the extrapolation of certain strategic trends already present in the present. These three futures included:

Extraterrestrialization, in which the greater part of humanity eventually resides off the surface of the earth.

Pastoralization, in which urbanization and rural depopulation continue their trends with the greater part of humanity residing in cities (already technically true, in so far as more than half of all human populations today are urban populations, but the disproportion is not yet overwhelming) and the countryside is returned to something like pastoralism.

Singularization, in which escalating computer technology transforms the life of the greater part of humanity, or simply displaces it. This scenario is based on Ray Kurzweil’s technological singularity, though treated as a process rather than an event (we are, after all, talking about history and not about divine fiat).

Recently in Marxist Eschatology I acknowledged that an old favorite must be added to our list of possible futures:

Communism, in which, following the totality of globalization and there being under this global (crony) capitalist regime no alternatives to proletarianism, the workers really do throw the bums out and take over for themselves.

All three of these potential futures were treated in the spirit of developing strategic trends that could conceivably become the dominant strategic trend of the future, and in so doing define a new division of macro-temporality. In other words, the strategic trend in question is treated as possessing the possibility of becoming a macro-historical trend. I say here “developing” and “possibility” in order to stress that these strategic trends, even if they do become the dominant trend, will not come about with catastrophic suddenness, as the result of a revolutionary upheaval.

Central to my understanding not only of current affairs but also of history, and especially history understand on the grandest scale, is the idea of a strategic trend. A strategic trend is any historical phenomenon that takes on a life of its own. There are major strategic trends that shape macro-history and there are small strategic trends that are little more than fads. The decline of printed newspapers in the wake of the growing importance of the internet is a strategic trend. The refinement of precision munitions is a strategic trend. The collapse of the horse-drawn buggy industry in the wake of automobiles was a strategic trend in the past, but now is irrelevant.

Thinking in terms of strategic trends is a kind of extension and extrapolation of uniformitarianism. If the past is to be interpreted in terms of processes known to be acting in the present (which is uniformitarianism), so too the future can be interpreted in terms of processes known to be acting in the present, or to have acted in the past. The use of uniformitarianism in the physical sciences focuses on physical laws discoverable in the present and applicable to natural events in the past. The use of uniformitarianism in the philosophy of history focuses on patterns of human behavior discoverable in the present or the past, and possible applicable to distinct human societies at any time in history, past, present, or future.

It was never my intention to present these Three Futures as exhaustive or as mutually exclusive, and I guess I really ought not to worry too much about it, since no one has commented on this post and suggested that my intention had been misconstrued. In any case, my recent addition of a (revised and reinterpreted) communism should make the non-exclusive character of my original list obvious. In this spirit of identifying strategic trends in the present that may become dominant strategic trends in the future, and in no way committed to an exclusive or closed list, I want to propose another possibility for the long term human future.

Human beings being what they are, there is always the possibility of returning to a past mode of life that proved robust and sustainable. Our long prehistory dominated, as it was, by a cyclical conception of time has deeply inculcated the idea of a “return to roots” in almost all human societies. A “return” to the agricultural paradigm, following on the experience of industrialization, and therefore transformed by this experience, could constitute a new division of macro-temporality, and this possibility I will call post-industrial agriculturalism, or neo-agriculturalism, or neo-agriculturalization when speaking of an historical process.

I have written quite a number of posts touching on the nature of settled agricultural civilization. The most significant of these posts include:

Civilizations Settled and Unsettled

The Agricultural Paradigm

Some Rough Notes on Agricultural Civilization

Pure Agriculturalism

The Telos of Agriculturalism

Many other posts of mine have touched upon agricultural civilization, but these are the ones with the most meat in them.

The strategic trend of agriculturalism as it reveals itself in the present dates at least to the “back to the land” movement of the late twentieth century, especially in its counter-culture iteration, and continues to crop up now and again in the popular media. For example, Japan’s youth turn to rural areas seeking a slower life by Roland Buerk of BBC News, Tokyo, is a typical expression of this.

In contemporary society we can identify strategic trends that are both a “pull” toward agriculturalism and a “push” away from industrialism. I have written on many occasions about the dehumanization and depersonalization of industrial-technological civilization, and escape from this regime is a recurring theme of popular culture. That is the “push” toward the supposedly simpler life of agriculturalism. On the “pull” side of the historical equation there is the long tradition of a kind of mysticism of the soil, such that in the event of neo-agriculturalism it might be possible to speak of the re-enchantment of the world (since the disenchantment of the world — die Entzauberung der Welt — has been one of the discontents of industrial-technological civilization).

The contemporary strategic trends of environmentalism and anti-globalization, while they garner a great deal of press, have not ultimately accomplished much. Environmentalism has changed the way some things are done, but a radical interpretation of environmentalism, the success of which would involve the abandonment of industrial-technological civilization, has made no headway at all. Only the most mild and inoffensive initiatives of environmentalism have had any traction, and certainly nothing that makes the ordinary person uncomfortable or even mildly inconvenienced is countenanced. That being said, the anti-globalization movement, in so far as it is a “movement” at all, has accomplished absolutely nothing except furnishing a pretext for protests and vandalism, which is great fun for a certain segment of society. However, in so far as “venting” is important, these protests have served a certain social function.

Despite this dismal record, and the likelihood that environmentalism and anti-globalization as strategic trends are likely to wither away in time as they become either irrelevant (anti-globalization) or completely co-opted by the status quo (environmentalism), these strategic trends might gain a new lease on a longer life if they feed into some larger movement that has a chance to fundamentally alter the way in which people live. Such opportunities come along only rarely in history, as I have attempted to argue on many occasions. Neo-agriculturalism would serve this functional quite competently, since environmentalism and anti-globalization could be given content (anti-globalization) and direction (environmentalism) by becoming associated with social change driven by a neo-agriculturist agenda.

When we think of a post-industrial agriculturalism in these terms, it becomes obvious that those strategic trends that ultimately become dominant trends that shape the next stage of macro-history are those trends that can be fed by the largest number of minor and middling strategic trend. In this way, a dominant strategic trend that comes to define a division of macro-history. Perhaps in the final analysis, the biggest tent wins. In other words, that strategic trend that can subsume under itself the greatest number of other strategic trend while retaining its essential coherency, may be that strategic trend that comes to dominate all other trends.

With this in mind we can identify a number of strategic trends that implicitly feed (or would feed) into neo-agriculturalism: being a locavore, and in fact the whole local food movement (and, to a lesser extent, the “slow food” movement), bioregionalism, eco-communalism, and radical environmental philosophies like deep ecology.

As I noted above, I don’t intend my identification of possible futures to be exclusive or exhaustive. Thus what I have previously identified as pastoralization could well coexist with neo-agriculturalization. Furthermore, pastoralization could be subsumed under neo-agriculturalization, or vice versa. A little more attention to detail would be needed to order to determine which strategic trend represented that of the greatest generality, therefore likely to subsume other strategic trends under it. However, this being history we are discussing, a certain degree of this determination is left to chance, circumstance, and contingency.

It should also be noted that these future scenarios I have been attempting to sketch do, at least to a limited degree, involve a reconsideration of, “the basic principles underlying our social order,” and constitute, “a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism” — two conditions that Francis Fukuyama named as necessary to refute his “end of history” hypothesis:

“At the core of my argument is the observation that a remarkable consensus has developed in the world concerning the legitimacy and viability of liberal democracy. This ideological consensus is neither fully universal nor automatic, but exists to an arguably higher degree than at any time in the past century.”

“In order to refute my hypothesis, then, it is not sufficient to suggest that the future holds in store large and momentous events. One would have to show that these events were driven by a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan – horrible as that would be for those countries – does not qualify, unless it somehow forced us to reconsider the basic principles underlying our social order.”

Francis Fukuyama, “A Reply to My Critics,” Fall 1989, The National Interest

For the record, I am interested neither in refuting or defending Fukuyama’s thesis, but his formulation does provide a certain clarification for what it takes to account for a genuinely novel historical development. I would be willing to state that, “a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism,” would be a sufficient condition for the definition of a new division of macro-history, and I would further hold that no such condition has presented itself since Fukuyama’s essay.

Again, however, we can identify strategic trends in the present that could well constitute a systematic idea of political and social justice that could displace that systematic idea of political and social justice that prevails today. For example, if we consider the idea of environmental justice we have a conception which if elaborated, extended, and expanded into the future could become an alternative paradigm of political and social justice. Such changes take time and cannot be seen in a single lifetime. Changes of an intellectual order I call metaphysical history, and metaphysical history is the summum genus of historical categories, subsuming even the macro-historical concerns I have been writing about here.

Notwithstanding the fact that, if humanity fails to transcend its planet-bound civilization its future will be necessarily finite (or we can also say that any successor species of homo sapiens will necessarily have a finite future), even given a finite future there would be time enough for many macro-historical divisions yet to be determined. One of these macro-historical divisions could well be a post-industrial agriculturalism.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: