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Freedom From vs Freedom To
Why a simpler future is not a regression
Last week I interviewed Chris Smaje, a social scientist, farmer, and author of Small Farm Future in which he explains how localised food systems can help communities combat the increasing instability of the world that we live in—and, importantly, the great inefficiency of the industrial agriculture model which currently requires 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food.
Towards the end of the episode, Chris and I discussed the narrative around farming, and the resistance people have to “regressing” back to a relationship with the land. We offered a different narrative, a narrative which could sell the benefits of producing one’s own food and highlight the difference between choices made by modern communities and realities forced on peasants and serfs in the past.
We discussed the increasing precarity of the modern world we live in, that people are disconnected from food and from their communities, that this produces disempowered and, quite frankly, infantalised citizens—is it not strange that a fully-grown biological organism not know how to feed itself? Small farms, community farms, therefore offer individuals a re-entry point into community, and can grant those people autonomy within a capitalist system that is rigged against labourers. Rather than framing farming as a regression to peasantry, could farming not be how people gain freedom from capitalism, from the rat race?
Only once gaining freedom from these things can we have freedom to. Margaret Atwood makes the distinction between freedom from and freedom to in her book, The Handmaid’s Tale. Many Westerners live in a world of freedom from: freedom from violence, from starvation (although even these freedoms are being eroded). But a citizen shouldn’t merely be free from the perils of existence, a human being should be free to be and do what brings us joy: freedom to spend time with loved ones, to develop one’s community, to be creative and imaginative, to dare envision better.
Freedom from capitalism could lead to freedom for communities and freedom to explore the myriad manifestations of human existence. Citizens become trapped within economic and political systems because they are neutered of their very capacity to look after themselves and each other; producing our own fuel—food—could be the most effective strategy to regain our freedom.
Why wouldn’t we want to be free from economic instability? Why wouldn’t we want to be independent of a callous and corrupt government? Why not choose to be free from a dependence on a globalised system which financialises human rights to extort the most vulnerable? Why wouldn’t we all want to be free from the limitations of the modern world which perpetuate an existential crisis?
Despite interviewing plenty of wonderful guests, for whom I have great respect, who exalt the benefits of farming, I’ve been very resistant to the idea of learning to work the land. Perhaps because I equated this potentiality as evidence of running out of choices and autonomy, and therefore being akin to the peasantry of the past. Yet everyone I speak to adores producing their food with their own hands, teaching their loved ones the same skills, and feeding their community. This led me to the question: What does working the land actually mean, and how do we counteract the scaremongering which says a farming future will be equivalent to medieval serfdom?
The peasantry of the past involved back-breaking work to produce a commodity that a Lord could capitalise on, and leaving surplus to feed the labourers. The vision Chris relays is working hard alongside the people you love, experiencing the joy of knowing where your food comes from, building connections within your community, and having time to do other things which make you happy.
The most profound relationship, surely, is of that which feeds: child and mother.
Beyond the value systems that Chris says small farms enables, communicating to a fed-up and scared generation of youth that they have an opportunity to opt out if they can figure out how to feed themselves is incredibly empowering. And, of course, opting out doesn’t mean running away, but rather choosing what one opts into. That choice doesn’t merely belong to the wealthy, either. There are plenty of community projects all over the world thanks to the tenacity of citizens and the vision they hold dear.
The whole problem with the modern world that we live in today is that, in a world of abundance, we have so little choice because of extractive capitalism, because resources are directed towards the few. Keeping your head above water demands so much energy and requires so much sacrifice, in a sense, which then drives the culture of consumerism and consumption: the one choice we have is what to spend our money on; which brand to pledge allegiance; which destination to visit. We make choices as consumers because our choices as citizens are denied us.
Saying to people that other options exist, there are other ways of organising as long as you can feed yourself, is desperately empowering. I repeat, the financialisation of human rights traps people within economic and political systems. Once we can figure out how to protect and provide for one another’s rights then the whole world opens itself up to possibility—freedom to.
Surely, there would be more art, more music, more literature, more joy. And lots of hard work, but work which does not alienate the labourer from the products of his efforts, but rewards the citizen with fruits.
Planet: Critical investigates why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.