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Feeding the revolution

November 14, 2012

Agriculture is essential to practical anarchism.

The food sovereignty movement is a good place to begin considering the relationship between how humans eat and how they live.  It rejects the concepts of for-profit agriculture and centralized production in favor of a more localized, humane approach to growing food.  One definition produced by the movement explains food sovereignty as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”  Local control and customization are to prevail over national direction.  Food policy is to be set by producers, not officials.  All valuable ideas.

However, the general principles embraced by food sovereignty advocates tend to look at the human-food relationship at a group level, not an individual one.  Food sovereignty would be better defined not only as the right for every person to eat and to have a say in the production of his food, but also as the right and even the obligation of every person to cultivate his own food.  This shift in viewpoint redefines food sovereignty as a literal exercise of sovereignty.  Or rule by shovel, if you prefer the term.  It is not an exaggeration to say that farmers are the freest of all men under the proper conditions.  Those who produce their own food guarantee their own survival and health.  They are not dependent on a nation-state to ensure that roads remain open and in good repair, that merchants do not attempt to manipulate regional markets, that quality standards are maintained.  They can live without the centralized processing and distribution of industrialized agriculture.  They do not need the advantages conferred by the nation-state in order to survive, and thus they can be largely indifferent to its concerns.  In fact, the nation-state is liable to become more of a burden to them than a help.  The risk always exists that it will impose crippling regulations on them to reassert its authority or seize their crops as a demonstration of power or for their own use.  That gives farmers and agriculturalists a vested interest in the decline of the state.  Its departure increases their safety and security, rather than the reverse.

Of course, for agriculture to empower the individual, it must be free of dependence on external inputs.  In other words, it must be both organic and sustainable.  Fertilizers, pesticides, and most forms of machinery are products of the industrial systems whose existence is made possible by the state; if the farmer is dependent upon these items, he remains dependent upon the state.  Organic agriculture, with heavy use of practices such as recycling and crop rotation, allows farmers to remain self-sufficient, thereby ensuring their sovereignty.  There is also compensation for the absence of artificial aids in the health and environmental benefits that organic farming offers.  Additionally, the lack of a large external market for foodstuffs in a prevalently agrarian society would help to prevent monoculture and specialization.  To feed themselves properly, farmers would need to grow a variety of crops, instead of just one for commercial purposes.

Subsistence agriculture provides a basis for individual sovereignty, but it also presents intellectual difficulties.  Throughout most of history, farming was the occupation of the vast majority of the human race.  The comparatively recent emergence of industrial and postindustrial societies has reversed this distribution.  It is logical to expect that large numbers of people now employed elsewhere would find it uncomfortable or distasteful to return to an agrarian lifestyle.  For this reason, agriculturalists of the future should aim at encouraging not mere subsistence, but rather subsistence affluence.  Subsistence affluence describes a condition in which the individual can produce all of the food he requires with a minimum amount of effort.  This does not refer to efficiency in conventional terms.  This refers to ease and exertion on a personal level.  The emphasis is on allowing the individual to retain as much leisure time as possible while still enabling him to provide adequately for his needs.  While the social mores of Western civilizations have evolved to regard labor as noble, there is no rational reason why extra labor should be indulged in if not required, especially if a surplus is neither necessary nor desired.  And achieving the same results with less work is a concept that has always been attractive to humans.  Research into the most favorable conditions and techniques for subsistence affluence should therefore be one of the primary areas of interest for the agrarian anarchist.

Agriculture at its most basic is an act of individual empowerment.  It is about survival, not profit.  If remembered, that principle has great social power.  Freedom is most easily achieved by those men who depend on society the least.  The farmer has the ability to be such a man.

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