Progress and the land

Essays Published June 1, 2010 in Published in The Idler, June 2010

You are a nimby, a reactionary and a Romantic idiot.

You want to go back to a Golden Age, in which you can play at living in prettified village poverty because you have never experienced the real thing. You are a privileged, bourgeois escapist. You dream of a prelapsarian rural idyll because you can’t cope with the modern multicultural, urban reality. You are a hypocrite. You are personally responsible for the misery of a lot of poor people in Africa who need you to buy their beans. You need to get real. This is the 21st century, and there is business to be done. There is poverty to eliminate, an economy to expand, a planet to be saved. You are not helping by playing at being William Cobbett or William Morris. Snap out of it. Grow up.

These are some of the things you can expect people to say to you if you dare to talk, today, about the land. Specifically, if you are foolish enough to suggest that there may be anything positive about rural life, about working the land, about land-based communities or about the possibly simpler or more essential life it may represent, you can expect to call down a firestorm upon your unsuspecting head.

I have written books and articles and given talks for a number of years which have touched on these issues. I have told detailed stories from all over the world about the struggles of land-based people against the forces which would dispossess them. I have tried to explain what makes those people so attached to the land, and I have also tried to explain my own love of the countryside, my own small works on the land, my need get my hands dirty, and what I think we are losing as we continue to concrete over the fields and lose our folk memory of the soil.

Every time I have done so, someone has popped up with at least one of the lines above. Sometimes it is said in mockery, sometimes in anger. Sometimes I have sensed that the accuser feels some personal slight has been done to them. The phrases are so similar, so often, from so many different people, that they are clearly not the original thoughts of those who peddle them. This is received wisdom, passed down over generations; a curiously Pavlovian reaction. The assumptions behind it are clear: city good, country bad; city modern, country backward; consumption modern, production antiquated; ‘progress’ good, always and forever.

This kind of thing is not new. Seventy years ago, in the viciously entertaining second section of his English travelogue The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell provided a critique of precisely the same kind of nonsense. Orwell was a socialist, but he was an idiosyncratic one, and one of the many complaints he airs about socialism in Wigan Pier is its incessant, dehumanising ‘machine worship’. Orwell detected – it wasn’t hard to detect – the extreme hostility of socialism towards the land and the people who belonged to it. The land, it was clear, represented the past. It represented reaction, smallness and stasis, inequality, feudalism and drudgery. In contrast, the urban, machine civilisation which Orwell both loathed and was impressed by represented a bright, shining, necessary future. Orwell’s description of what happens when a challenge is issued to a ‘vulgar machine worshipper’ is worth quoting at length, because it could have been written yesterday:

In the first place he will tell you that it is impossible to ‘go back’ (or to ‘put back the hand of progress’‘as though the hand of progress hadn’t been pretty violently put back several times in human history!), and will then accuse you of being a medievalist and begin to descant upon the horrors of the Middle Ages, leprosy, the Inquisition, etc. As a matter of fact, most attacks upon the Middle Ages and the past generally by apologists of modernity are beside the point, because their essential trick is to project a modern man, with his squeamishness and his high standards of comfort, into an age when such things were unheard of. But notice that in any case this is not an answer. For a dislike of the mechanized future does not imply the smallest reverence for any period of the past … When one pictures a desirable civilization, one pictures it merely as an objective; there is no need to pretend that it has ever existed in space and time. Press this point home, explain that you wish to aim at making life simpler and harder instead of softer and more complex, and the Socialist will usually assume that you want to revert to a ‘state of nature’’meaning some stinking Paleolithic cave: as though there were nothing between a flint scraper and the steel mills of Sheffield, or between a skin coracle and the Queen Mary!

What is striking about this passage is that not only the arguments but the language they are couched in have undergone little change in seven decades. What has changed is that it is not just socialists who adopt this line now, but people from across the political spectrum. Try proposing a ‘simpler life’ today; try suggesting that economic growth might be in some way not the panacea it is claimed; try questioning the value of the internet or suggesting that we should scale back our material lusts in any way. Within ten seconds you will be accused of wearing a ‘hair shirt’; another five will see you accused of wanting to ‘make everyone live in caves.’ Persist and you’ll be compared to Pol Pot or – if the accuser has even less imagination – Hitler (he was a vegetarian, you know.)

What is happening here, and why? Why does a love of or an attachment to the land or the countryside elicit such strong and negative reactions in so many people? I think that we can best uncover the origins of this attitude by taking a step back and examining the assumptions that govern the civilisation we are currently living in. Every civilisation has its founding myths, whether it likes to admit it or not, and ours is what we might call the progressive narrative. Since the Enlightenment, this particular version of the human story has been pretty much all-conquering, certainly in the West where it originated, and increasingly in the wider world too. It is a story as simple and powerful as the religious myths which it supplanted and upon which it is parasitical.

Humanity, it tells us, started off grunting in the primeval swamps and will end up conquering the stars. Each generation will experience better lives than the one before, thanks to the machine civilisation we have built to cocoon us. Soon this will allow us to abolish poverty, stabilise and manage ‘our environment’, extend US-style representative democracy to everyone on Earth and create a global civilisation where everyone has access to Twitter, Starbucks and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This is a caricatured but reasonably accurate version of the progressive narrative. It tells us that things will always get better, and that if we work hard we can have everything. It is a powerful and appealing story. For this reason, it is embedded deep in our culture, and you can hear it rising, unexamined, from the depths every day, through the mouths of politicians, journalists, teachers, scientists – pretty much all of us.

Implicit in this myth, and essential to it, is the idea that progress requires an escape from the land. In the soil, in the woods and the fields and the moors and the mountains, lurks a dirty, frightening and very un-progressive barbarism. The countryside is the home of murky customs, superstitions, witches, inbreeding, foxhunting and Tory MPs. Note how the word ‘peasant’, which in its literal sense simply means small farmer, has become a term of abuse. Karl Marx, the ultimate progressive (and a metropolitan social climber on the quiet) talked scornfully of the peasant populations of Europe, ‘mired in the idiocy of rural life’. Revolution, he thought, would rescue them, by force if need be, from this slough of despond, corralling them into the factories where they could be more useful.

The political left has always fetished the progressive, urban narrative. Traditionally they were opposed in this by a conservative, often rural, right, who stood for king, country and the land (much of which they owned.) Today, though, the progressive narrative has crossed political boundaries, broken them down and gleefully trampled upon them. These days, everyone from socialists to environmentalists to David Cameron is a ‘progressive’, and the future is urban, consumerist, fast-moving and mediated. There is no place for the land, for that might require us to slow down, look around us, understand where we are, see ourselves as part of a web rather than as free-floating individuals taking their pleasure where they can. It might remind us of where we came from and what we really are, and the consequences of that are too frightening to contemplate.

The progressive narrative propagates a number of fantasies about the way the world is, but one of the most pernicious is that everywhere is essentially the same. Places don’t matter, individual human beings are free-floating entities, the same wherever they are brought up, detached from the land, consumers in a global mall: citizens of nowhere. This is the point at which the left and the right seamlessly meld into one. Leftists have long nurtured a vision of a world in which boundaries are done away with, religion is dead, and we are all ‘global citizens.’ Meanwhile, the neoliberal right nurse their own dreams of a borderless world of free-floating capital, a ‘global market’ in which money is the arbiter of value.

Today, these two dreams have become one, though neither side will admit it. The longed-for One World is rapidly approaching, and it is a world of increasing subservience to the machine. It is also a world of Change, with a capital C. In the progressive narrative, change is the only constant. Continuity, stability, the simple act of standing still – all are looked on with suspicion. Attachment to place, locality, tradition and culture are tantamount to fascism. Look at the election slogans of any politician anywhere in the world, allegedly left or supposedly right, and there it is: Change. A slogan we can all do business with. This, of course, is not new either. Marx and Engels pinned its inevitability down over 150 years ago in the Communist Manifesto:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.

Marx and Engels thought all this was rather good. Constant revolution suited them fine; what they were concerned about was who got the spoils. Today, that argument rumbles on, but the obsession with change is even more deeply embedded. Ethnologist Ullrich Kockel, Professor of Ethnology and Folk Life at the University of Ulster, has been studying land-based communities around the world for decades. In that time he has come up time and again against the dogma of progress-at-all-costs and its corollary: a contempt for the land and its ‘backward’ people. In his recent inaugural address to the university he lambasted this worldview, which he sees not only in politicians and the media but in unthinkingly right-on academics who ought to know better:

Any positive evaluation of the past, and any analysis emphasising continuity over change is branded as indicative of reactionary politics, emotional regression, or both: an irrational scramble for shelter from the vagaries of the modern world. This diagnosis has become so commonplace and deep-seated that anyone daring to challenge it would find themselves immediately relegated to the same politico-cultural sickbed. Under no circumstances must one look for continuities (unless one wants to be seen as emotionally retreating into a fantasy Golden Age).

Change, in other words, is the only constant. From Barack Obama to David Cameron, progress, and its modern sub-narratives ‘growth’ and ’development, is the only dish presented to us. And because we must all abhor stasis, we must abhor the land. For what is more stolid, unchanging and symbolic of the terrible, squalid past than mud, trees, and rivers? And who is more likely to stand in the way of growth, progress and the machine than the foolish, reactionary romantic dolts who persist in staying attached to it?

This is the attitude that has led, and continues to lead, to the destruction of land all over the world, and of the forced dispersal of people who remain attached to it. The religion of progress decrees that we should all become part of the mediated, virtual world of happy urban consumers. But some people persist in not being interested. Small farmers are not big consumers. Peasants are not much interested in voting. Tribal people would rather hunt and fish than let a PLC dig for bauxite under their ancestral forests.

And this is their doom. Consider Stalin’s forced farm collectivisation, or the slaughter of tribal peoples from Indonesia to the Amazon. Consider the tens of thousands forced from their homes by bulldozers in India to make way for dams to fuel the growing cities. Consider the North American Free Trade Agreement, which destroyed the livelihoods of Mexican peasants for the benefit of US agribusiness. Consider the ongoing concreting of countryside in rich countries like Britain, where farmers still haemorrhage from the land.

All over the world, people are being forced from their land in the name of the Machine. We rarely hear their stories. What we hear instead is an unceasing diet of progress-is-good-for-them propaganda, which differs little from Victorian lectures about the White Man’s Burden and the need to bring civilisation to the savages. Poor, unhappy peasants, we are told, long to leave their scrappy rural lives for the big cities. Our duty is to help them do it, by means of development and growth.

Stories that do not fit this narrative tend not to make the light of day. Some years back I spent time with peasant farmers in Brazil, who were part of the Movimento Sem Terra, or landless workers’ movement. The Sem Terra are peasants without land. Often they have been forced from their land; sometimes they have left it to go to the cities, then changed their minds when they saw the reality of urban life. Now the Sem Terra is the world’s biggest social movement, and it is made up entirely of poor, small farmers whose wish is not for jobs in call centres but for land. They get it by force, occupying the unused estates of rich landowners. The successful Sem Terra I spoke to had never been happier; the land was where they wanted to be.

A similar tale can be heard in India. India, we hear in the media almost every day, is a thrusting, modern success story; a land of Microsoft and call centres and dynamism and growth. But more than all this, India is a land of farmers. The progressive narrative expects them to leave their pointless little farms and get with the urban programme. But many of them have other ideas. Vast farmers’ movements have arisen in India in recent decades, counting millions amongst their numbers. They have invaded the offices of multinational seed companies, built bonfires of genetically-modified crops and undertaken marches, hundreds of thousands strong, across the country. All this for the right to continue to farm; to continue to stay on the land, despite the efforts of the progressive classes to force them off.

Stories like this come in from all over the world, every day, if you know where to look. You may have read, for example, one of the gazillions of pieces in the mainstream media over the last few years about how many Chinese people are leaving the land and flooding into the cities. There were far fewer stories explaining how last year more people left the cities to return to the countryside. In fact, to my knowledge, there were none. It’s not the story we’re supposed to be hearing. The continued existence, and often resistance, of land-based communities is a two-fingered salute to the dogma which requires us to believe that everyone everywhere, given half the chance, would thrown down their hoes for a job in a Motorola factory.

All of this gives us, in the rich world, food for thought. In my young days, I used to think that ‘the system’ could be smashed with revolution and resistance and the like – the time-honoured tools of the excitable political radical. I don’t believe that anymore. I don’t really believe that the system can be smashed at all. But I’m pretty sure it is beginning to crumble by itself, as the myth of progress hits the buffers of reality. The economic woes that have shaken the whole machine over the past eighteen months are as nothing to the ecological woes that are unfolding, as the climate and the soil itself shiver beneath the force of our delusions. The world, it seems, cannot take much more progress of this kind. It has been calculated, for example (and by real scientists, not by troublemaking eco-hippies) that if the global economy grows at an average rate of 3% for the next twenty years, we will consume in that period resources equivalent to all those consumed since humanity first evolved. Something, clearly, is going to have to give.

George Orwell, finally, concluded that ‘progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles.’ He was right about that, and every year it becomes clearer. But what remains? To Orwell, the answer seemed a despairing one: ‘quietism – robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it.’ But there is, it seems to me, another way. To put a spanner in the works of the progressive narrative, to foul up the machine in your own small way, the best course of action is simply to stand your ground. What really gets in the way of all this change, progress, development and other euphemisms for destruction and profit is grounded people who know their place, in the physical sense, and are prepared to fight for it if they have to.

To belong to a piece of land, to know it and be able to work it, to walk it until you know what it wants, is a lifetime’s work. To do such a thing, or even attempt it, is to slow down, breathe more deeply, spend less time in front of screens and more in the sun and rain. To get your hands dirty, to grow your own food, to provide for yourself and your family, to stand your ground, know your place ’ all of this is to commit an open heresy against the ossifying religion of progress. In an increasingly placeless, rootless world, the best way to resist is to dig – and the best way to rebel is to belong.

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