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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Klassen on Rural Homesteading for the "Time of Troubles"

Via Ender's Review, June 5. Robert Klassen has some observations that should be of interest to any lefty who's into Peak Oil, any Misesian who believes we're headed for a crackup boom, or anybody in general who believes state capitalism is headed for some kind of messy crisis of inputs: "The Transition II."

How can communities be organized to survive the threat? I would like to begin to try to answer that question by talking about the farm where I grew up.

This farm was located two-miles west of LaPorte, Indiana. The town was named by French trappers as "The Door" out of the forests to the prairies of rich soil to the south. Our farm sat on the edge of the glacial boundary, on the leftover sand and clay and stones of the melted glacier. Around sixty-five acres, the soil was fertile enough to grow anything appropriate to that climate with sufficient patience and labor.

Our family consisted of three generations, eight adults and nine children, living in three separate households. Our immediate neighbors lived on parcels of one to ten acres and comprised a dozen adults and two-dozen children. By working together in completely free and informal manner, expressing an innate spirit of cooperation, all of these people survived the privations of the Depression and WWII without suffering. How?

What I remember most clearly is a spontaneous division of labor, and trade. Our family produced raw milk, chickens, eggs, fruit, cider, honey, and grains. One neighbor specialized in strawberries and sweet corn, another in vegetables, another in goat products. Food was traded within the group, and the surplus was sold in individual roadside stands.

There was no fuzzy warm feeling of family or community here, that was simply the way things were done. There was a fierce sense of property ownership, and woe betide cheats or trespassers, including children – maybe especially children who stole watermelons. Borrowed tools were returned promptly, and if a neighbor asked for help with a major job, one would be wise to arrive early and stay late, or at least until milking time....

State sponsored corporations are trying to sell these people single-harvest hybrid seeds, and discourage the use of native seeds that will reproduce identical genetic copies year after year for free. I have to agree that costly hybrids are inappropriate to poor subsistence farmers even though potential yields may be many times greater, because high-tech agriculture presupposes high-tech farmers, which they are not. The matriarch interviewed in this essay simply said no to hybrid seeds. No sale. What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t take a UN resolution to say, I won’t buy it.

Klassen says one thing I disagree with:

This kind of rural model cannot be imported to the cities, and city dwellers would not willingly be exported to the rural model. The millions of hungry urban people require intensive mechanized agriculture with its high-yield hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides plus thoroughly educated farming practitioners and skilled banking creditors. For urban dwellers rhapsodizing on an organic garden theme in nature, I suggest they try it before they try to sell the idea: turn over an acre with a spade, break it up with a hoe, rake it out, plant it, cultivate and harvest by hand, and then talk about it. They didn’t call it back-breaking work for nothing. Even Thoreau hired a teamster with oxen and plow to break Emerson’s land at Walden.

First of all, he sets up a false dichotomy between "intensively mechanized" chemical agriculture and spadework. What about the possibility of appropriate-scale mechanization: i.e., the use of a simple rototiller? They won't throw you out of the organic club for using it. Second, even without any mechanization at all, there's a lot (really a lot) less spadework involved in intensive raised bed techniques than in spading up a field for row crops. One double-digging job for a bed can last for years, with only U-bar cultivation subsequently, if you're careful not to compact the soil. Third, the vacant space in even a built-up city is sufficient to meet a surprising proportion of people's total needs, what with rooftop gardens, vacant lots, small yards, and the like. John Jeavons, through years of experimentation, has managed to get the amount of space needed to produce an average person's diet (meat included) down to 4,000 sq. ft. Fourth, from the point of view of labor-time, such techniques are probably a net plus for most people, if you compare the amount of time it takes to grow the stuff to the amount of time you'd have to work to earn it. Borsodi calculated, in Flight From the City, that the total cost of labor and supplies to grow and can one's own tomatoes was about a third less than the grocery store price.

I recently received, by email, this criticism of Borsodi's latter claim, with the request that I post it on my blog:

Of the many comments I would like to make, I'm only going to focus on one comment you made in your Rejoinder to George Reisman, who, by the way, is a PHD and should be addressed accordingly.

Your rejoinder states,

"......Further, as counter-intuitive as Reisman may find it, the economies of mechanized farming and food processing are not that great even over the ordinary techniques of the average backyard gardener. Borsodi did a careful study of all the costs (including labor time and supplies) involved in growing and canning vegetables at home, and found that it was cheaper overall to grow one’s own. As I said above, the increased overhead and distribution costs of large scale production offset many of the economies that Reisman is so enamored of."

What you fail to recognize, as did Borsodi, is the violation of the fundamental rules of economics, (see Hazlitt, “Economics in One Lesson” for further clarification). Namely, Borsodi's ‘careful study’ obviously does not calculate ‘the costs to society’ if everyone had to take the time to can their own vegetables. Would we have electricity?, Automobiles?, High rise buildings?, etc.? if Edison, Ford, Carnegie, etc. spent most of there time canning vegetables, baking bread, building their homes, etc? Of course not!

May I suggest that you read Prof Reisman's book Capitalism and study the recommended readings he provides, then come back and see if you still think Mutualism is viable. Until you complete this exercise and master that body of economic knowledge, your ideas cannot be considered reasonable by any intellectual that does have that body of knowledge (economics) mastered. You owe this to your participants and followers that, I believe, are being led down a path of economic ignorance....

Sincerely,
Mark Baumann
Project Manager, The Boeing Company

Mr. Baumann's interpretation of Hazlitt sounds remarkably like a public good argument for innovation, if (as it seems) he posits some sort of "cost to society" that's not reflected in the costs of materials and one's own labor time. Remember, Borsodi's calculation of costs included the average value of labor time involved in growing and canning. So if he was correct, there would be a net gain in time for a person of average income in doing it himself; he wouldn't "have to take the time," but rather would choose to spend the time doing it himself instead, in order to maximize his own available time.

Remember, also, that Borsodi's calculation was made using an average wage. Someone who earns significantly more than the average for an hour's work might find it pays better to buy groceries. And whether an hour spent inventing automobiles is more remunerative than an hour raising one's own vegetables is an individual decision, based on the individual's perception of cost. If the individual perceives the potential payoffs from invention to exceed the benefits growing vegetables, he's free to do so. If not, I see no reason for him to feel under obligation to worry about "social cost." Besides, if growing one's own vegetables reduces the total labor time needed for procuring food, a person will have more time left over for other pursuits. If anything, in a society with less dependence on wage labor and more bargaining power for labor, and with decentralized small-scale production, I'd expect more productive innovation by people tinkering in small shops.

If the costs and benefits of various uses of an hour's labor are fully internalized by the laborer, then it seems to me that a simple economic calculation of comparative advantage will lead to the most "socially useful" use of time. Unless, again, you're proposing some public good standard of the "best" individual use of time apart from individual calculations of efficiency? If the individual is expected work longer hours to buy something than it would take to make it himself, because his wage-labor is more socially useful, it seems you're elevating some standard above demonstrated preference.

I've already read Economics in One Lesson, but I'll add Reisman's book to my reading list lest I wander off the Celestial Highway onto the Path of Economic Ignorance. As for my "followers," Mr. Baumann flatters me: these cats don't much care to be herded.

By the way: I believe it's fairly standard in this genre to refer to authors by last name without any honorific. At least I don't recall seeing any prefatory "Mr." cluttering up "Carson" in Reisman's article. And in the States, at least, any insistence on the social use of "Dr." by PhDs produces an effect more comical than anything else.

10 Comments:

Blogger Vache Folle said...

The insistence on titles evokes hilarity in the US. I work for Germans who love titles and do not realize how funny we think they are. For example, I can't keep a straight face at all when I refer to Herr Doktor Doktor Lange. That's really his title, and he would be pissed off if you didn't use it.

As to your critic's substantive assertions, I reckon that his argument could be made about anything. What if Jonas Salk might have invented something even better if he hadn't wasted his time with polio? Marie Curie could have come up with a superior pie recipe if it weren't for her fooling around with radium. Society's loss, I reckon.

June 19, 2006 6:46 AM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

The good doctor is at it again. I'd suggest that this time you rebut and/or clarify as needed, citing chapter and verse, then arrange for people to start tag teaming him so that this incessant argument by repetition doesn't seep into the consciousness of the unwary by default.

For myself, I'm going to take my time digesting it and then point out that his strictures do not apply across the board, that in my reading for one it is possible to have a different original basis for establishing property according to circumstances, and that his wholesale attack is therefore a straw man for at least some of his targets.

June 19, 2006 7:48 AM  
Anonymous Lady Aster said...

"Until you complete this exercise and master that body of economic knowledge, your ideas cannot be considered reasonable by any intellectual that does have that body of knowledge (economics) mastered. You owe this to your participants and followers that, I believe, are being led down a path of economic ignorance...."

Dear goddess. What an inflated, condescending, pompous, bloated, concieted, arrogant, prick-headed self-righteous fucktard.

Oops. My apologies for the discourteous identification of objective reality. I'm sure it's not up to Project Manager Baumann's standards, which from his language derive from some form of high church Christianity. I merely feel that Mr. Baumann is an ass and should be dressed accordingly.

This stuffed suit prattles on about economic ignorance, but no mutualist deviation from the vanilla free market could be as culpable as the right-wing opportunism of working in a house of corporate statism like The Boeing Company. And to proclaim onself as 'project manager' in a conversation on political philosophy is equivalent to flashing one's oath of fealty to neomercantilism. One wonders if Baumann's coat of arms shall feature the vulture and the hyena.

Lady Aster Francesca

Ordo Cyp. (Apprentice)

esteemed reader of Henry Hazlitt's Economics and One Lesson and revered skimmer of George Reisman's Capitalism

herded cat

June 19, 2006 10:07 AM  
Blogger donald said...

Another point, in the contemporary economy, at least in the US, think of what people actually do for wages. I work in retail. My job is completely expendable and no doubt will soon be displaced by better security and self-checkouts. I only do it to pay my rent and buy groceries. Economists hate to do this, because as a general rule they're insane and wedded to Power, but a vast amount of jobs now don't have anything to do with increasing productivity and innovation. They displaced the agrarian class and threw most of it into low-wage service sector jobs that honestly give little real benefit to the world.

In fact, I'm really annoyed that whenever anyone talks about "organics" they try and bust the romantic bubble by invoking the back-breaking labor of yesteryear.

Contemporary drives towards organic labor aren't primitive or backwards, they're incorporating the general decentralization of production possible in a post-Fordist economy. Look at any of the methods discussed and described- permaculture, organic farming, biointensive methods. These aren't the same type of farming as we saw in the Great Plains (which should never have been farmed in the first place, because the dirt's just freaking wrong for it, so OF COURSE it's backbreaking). Instead of placing such a premium on sheer force, we can actually apply science and thought and planning to smallholder farming- and low and behold, that works well in a decentralized fashion, because local knowledge of conditions is better than giant fleets of combines.

The good doctor is making an argument rooted in an industrial organization that has shifted across the globe and especially in the US. I find it stunning that the same professionals can in one moment glory in the spread of web technology and an information-based economy and then fail to notice immediately that the move towards organics and smallholder plots currently represents an extension of that current, not a reversion.

If you farm by brute force and total defiance of local ecology, as most of farming was back in the day, then yeah, it'll be painful and time-consuming and hard. If you use appropriate scale technologies and actually study what you're doing, meshing your production with what the local ecology generally supports, then presto, suddenly gets easier.

Best example of this coming up I think is switchgrass on the Great Plains. Switchgrass is just prairie grass. It's what grows when you DON'T disturb prairie soil, when you DON'T douse it in industrial chemicals and when you DON'T irrigate the hell out of it till your rivers and wells run dry. And happily, it happens to be the best crop for the production of cellulosic ethanol (followed by kudzu). So whereas growing wheat and crops in the Plains is backbreaking toil (because the environment isn't actually suited for it) switchgrass production would work just as efficiently and effectively with some refined permaculture methods.

Now of course the economists dream of giant factories reaching into the sky and armies of robots led by professionals doing all the work in society, and along with them the managers and politicians, so it might be several years before anyone actually points out that they don't need industrial farms to grow ethanol stock. But the cause of this isn't in the labor itself, it's in the blindness that comes from arrogance, the arrogance that pretends knowledge is meant to erect bureaucratic toil and torment instead of increae the smoothness of our conenction to the world.

The same people who attack organics as dreamy attack solar and wind as inefficient, and through some deep madness think nuclear and petroleum are sane (and ignore the billions that went into their technological development that HASN'T gone into, say, solar cells). They think the deep probelm of the world is to always increase scale, whenever it's actually to increase distribution of real, on-the-ground capital.

So whatever. They'll never get it, they don't want to get it, and they'll be scoffed in their fields the second they do get it. Let them rot in their Ur-staat fantasies.

June 19, 2006 10:11 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

What a great crop of comments, no pun intended!

Vache Folle,

I knew a German major in college who spent some time as an exchange student, who noticed the same thing. His host family and a neighboring family, both white collar "professionals," had lived next to each other for twenty years. The wives gossiped at the fence everyday. At one point, they decided it was time (after 20 years) to address each other by first names and substitute "du" for "Sie," but that they should clear it with their husbands first. The verdict from the husbands was unanimous: "No--too unprofessional."

PML,

I look forward to seeing any response you make. I actually tried to do just what you suggest, within the space constraints of my rejoinder, and compare what I actually wrote to his clueless misreadings and non sequiturs in the most egregious cases. I suspect he was caught off guard by the fact that I kept talking back in the rejoinder, insead of crawling off like a whipped dog as he'd expected. Surely he was aware he wouldn't have the last word.

He may be counting on the fact that his venues have a much larger circulation than mine, in deliberately ignoring and talking past my responses and repeating his old assertions.

Lady Aster,

ROFL. But what do you really think of this guy? I can't help imagining him as that guy in the "Eric the Half-a-Bee" skit: "He hed an ec-cident." The gratuitous reference to his project manager credentials make me suspect a heavy dose of technocratic managerialism. Perhaps in the High Church Anglican world he envisions the squires will be replaced by project managers and PhDs will stand in for vicars.

I didn't mention the Boeing thing--I was trying to be polite, and besides couldn't throw stones since I'd worked in a VA hospital myself--but I admit I was struck by the incongruity coming from a Mises.Org fellow-traveler.

Donald,

Thanks for pointing out something I was imperfectly grasping at: the fact that most people currently engaged in wage labor have no opportunity for innovation or creativity at all in their work lives. From those engaged in self-directed production for the first time, there would likely be an explosion of increased productivity as people finally had the authority to translate their own direct observations of the work process into improvements, and reap the rewards themselves.

The tendency of orthodox economists and policy-makers to implement even alternative technology in terms of a Stalinist factory system is also well taken. I've seen the same phenomenon in the assumptions that wind power means massive wind farms connected to a central grid, rather than individual wind generators for each home, and pontificators on the inefficiency of biofuel production who assume they'll be produced at large factories instead of at the point of consumption.

June 19, 2006 11:14 AM  
Anonymous Lady Aster said...

Kevin-

Thanks much... and yes, I was thinking of Anglicanism. I was brought under a mostly secular but morally airtight Episcopalianism myself (can you tell?) and have more than a bit of special vitriol for this peculiar brand of moralism.

As for throwing stones. Well. To be strictly fair I wouldn't condemn Baumann for simple working for Boeing- we all must have bread, and for most of us that means working for those with wealth and power, one way or another. But Baumann clearly goes beyond this; presenting his employer as a badge of status and his rank meritorious of esteem. In which case his participation in the act is willful. Baumann is a corporatist in his innermost soul. There is a difference.

"[T]he fact that most people currently engaged in wage labor have no opportunity for innovation or creativity at all in their work lives. From those engaged in self-directed production for the first time, there would likely be an explosion of increased productivity as people finally had the authority to translate their own direct observations of the work process into improvements, and reap the rewards themselves."

On a different note, I totally loved this piece. Thank you!

June 19, 2006 6:43 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

He may be counting on the fact that his venues have a much larger circulation than mine, in deliberately ignoring and talking past my responses and repeating his old assertions.

Heh, ya think?

Incidentally I was an exchange student in Germany, too, and majored in German in college. Not all Germans are so uptight - but much of the old guard is wedded to status and the heraldry that accompanies it.

Great discussion here. I just hope that at some point Herr Doktor Reismann can be directly challenged. I'm so sick of his only critique of mutualism being "buy my book!!!"

June 20, 2006 7:59 AM  
Anonymous quasibill said...

To be honest, it was the utter vapidity of Dr. Resiman's critique of your book that convinced me that there was something to be learned from your arguments.

Not that Reisman makes many good arguments (I think he takes Rothbard's prediction about experts specializing where they are weakest as a challenge to live up to), but his inability to address your arguments on the merits combined with his resort to ad hominems and vitriol were telling indicators of where the truth in the debate lay.

I'm still not a fan of mutualist property and banking theory, but I've learned a lot by reading your critiques of the standard Misesian position.

So despair not, your exchange with Reisman has at least one partial convert to show for it!

June 20, 2006 12:24 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

quasibill,

I appreciate your thoughtful comments under Reisman's post at Mises Blog. You do about as good a job running circles around him as you do with Ron Bailey at Reason Hit&Run.

I've made a new post on Reisman's lattest effort in which I succumb to the temptation to be a little vitriolic myself.

Your reaction to Reisman is interesting. As I suggest in the latest post, the worst case scenario for Reisman is for anyone with a modicum of critical thinking ability to actually read both his review and rejoinder for himself. His criticisms do more promote my work among thinking people than anything I could write.

June 20, 2006 4:26 PM  
Blogger Adam B. Ricketson said...

Hi Kevin,

I've been trying to dream up a good slogan for "our" movement. This post makes me think that my current favorite is pretty good:

"Solidarity and self-sufficiency"

I think those two words balance each other nicely. One is collective and one is fragmentive, which I think illustrates the idea of individual soverignty with a general spirit of cooperation.

Anyway, the classics might do well also:
-Liberty, fraternity, equality
-Live Free or Die

June 21, 2006 2:36 PM  

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