RURAL SANCTUARIES IN THE TIME OF PERMANENT CRISIS

 

Landscapes of pleasure? Laboratories of the future? Or the ruse of suburban post-romanticism?

by

Yanis Varoufakis

 

Division of Political Economy

University of Athens

and

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs

The University of Texas at Austin

 

February 2014

 


1. Sanctuaries from war and crisis

 

For some, the voguish assumption that the rural is ipso-facto humane, whereas the urban is inherently oppressive, seems natural. That was never my view. Nevertheless, my mother’s accounts of the ghastly winter of 1941 implanted in me the idea of the countryside as a sanctuary at a tender age.

 

Mother’s stories often began with the horse-drawn carts doing their morning rounds in the streets of Athens, collecting the corpses of those who had died of hunger the night before. It was then that my grandmother apparently managed to evacuate her children to the Northern Peloponnesian countryside for a few, short weeks. Away from the cesspool of grief and disease that was occupied Athens, mother forged lyrical stories out of the small pleasures that they had enjoyed in the countryside. Those stories, which she lovingly recounted, came back to me when a new wave of Athenian escapees abandoned our troubled city, following the nation’s recent Great Depression, to ‘return’ to their ancestors’ untended lands, hoping to become a successful version of Jean de Florette.[1]

 

Cities magnetise with the promise of waged employment, social mobility and an escape from what Karl Marx dared describe as the “idiocy of rural life”.[2] As long as there is a state that provides basic infrastructure, and the overall economy is growing, urbanisation is synonymous with poverty alleviation.[3] However, as soon as capitalism goes into a major spasm, as it did in 1929 and then again in 2008, cities crush their weakest citizens mercilessly. Then, all of a sudden, the countryside, where home production is a tad easier, begins to appeal again. Greater access to land and a sense of community, imagined or real, attract.

 

Back in 1991, Australia was badly hit by a recession that marked most of the Anglo-sphere. Up on the Blue Mountains, not far from Sydney, unemployed workers and exasperated shopkeepers got together to create an alternative monetary system, which I ventured to investigate. Work was rewarded in a communal currency whose units corresponded, roughly, to an hour’s toil. Bits of stamped paper, or coupons, were paid to handymen, carpenters and piano teachers who would then use them to pay for groceries at the local store, for farmhand labour employed in their vegetable garden, even for fuel at the local petrol station. Coupon recipients would, in turn, use them to command the labour of cashiers, drivers, employees, painters.

 

Upon witnessing this circular income flow, which bypassed the recessionary capitalist economy, it hit me that the community had sponteneously enacted John Locke’s principle that value ought to result from blending one’s labour with the land, along with implements previously produced. The community grew, as dejected Sydney-siders flocked to the mountain, enticed by a communitarian oasis flourishing within the desert of failing capitalist labour markets. Alas, it was not to last. This impressive laboratory of rural, market-based solidarity failed for two reasons. One was its success: as the number of associates rose, and greater value was generated within the impromptu monetary system, some who craved to move on began to demand payment in dollars and, thus, the bonds of trust began to loosen (in a manner that Ibn Khaldoun would have fully recognised[4]). The second reason was that Australian capitalism exited its slump, luring the rural ‘apostates’ back into the fold of suburban normality.

 

The world at large is, in our days, dazed and perplexed by the never-ending crisis that began in 2008. From London to Yokohama, from Sao Paulo to Athens, and from Jakarta to Penzance, we are constantly told that recovery is on its way. However we know it in our bones that nothing makes sense anymore in terms that most had taken for granted until 2008. Never before had we grasped as powerfully as today the urgent need for a fresh set of socio-economic arrangements. And, yet, never before had we, collectively, felt so pessimistic about the prospect of genuinely radical change.

 

At previous historical junctures, similar realisations led some to board ships like the Mayflower and set course for an imagined terra nullius on which to build their utopias (usually at great cost to the natives). Today, with Google Earth confirming that the planet is virtually fully booked, and that mega-cities are expanding like raging bushfires, all we have left, in terms of spatial possibilities, are inhospitable steppes and a few rural pockets that are being partially de-populated due to urbanisation. Are these potential landscapes of genuine pleasure? Can alternatives to our failing market societies be blueprinted and tested there? Will rural communities become the laboratories of socio-economic arrangements that give us more elbowroom to choose our projects and partners, to become the agents we have the potential for?

 

2. The country-city dialectic

 

Romanticism portrays rural communities as the loci of benevolence, reciprocity and consensus. Avant-guard ruralists, resembling a Gainsborough or a Constable, are averse to complexity, as they celebrate the agrarian landscape. Urban modernists, on the other hand, rejoice in complexity and look beyond the idyllic depictions of rural scenery to discern backbreaking work, unbearable domination, conflict, exploitation, debt-bondage,[5] even David Ricardo’s source of all evil: economic rent.[6]

 

The reality of rural life is, of course, an untidy mixture of serfdom and independence, of freedom and quiet desperation. Even in the Middle Ages village communities provided peasants with the power to resist the lord’s iron will in ways that the landless proletariat lacked once the Dark Satanic Mills had absorbed them. Nevertheless, the peasantry remained outside the State and subject to its alien power, as to be a peasant was to be a non-citizen. It was only in ancient Athens, for a brief moment in history, that this ‘fence’ had been breached. For under the Cleisthenes reforms peasants became citi-zens and, thus, the Attic countryside was poli-ticised. However, once the fragile flower of Athenian democracy was crushed, the countryside fell permanently on the wrong side of the fence ruthlessly dividing the Polis from the a-political landscape.

 

It took the Enclosures in England and Scotland to break down the village community and to give a ferocious twist to the city-country dialectic. Fencing off the land, in the process of evicting the peasants, was paradoxically the violent move which brought down the barriers that kept peasants a-political. As they congregated in the nearby villages, turning them into slum-cities, they set in motion the process of becoming modernity’s citizens. At first, they entered civic society as a mass of isolated, almost lost, souls. Their dislocation created two of capitalism’s driving forces: commodified (fenced-off) land and a (property-less) working class. A longing for the countryside would act both as industrialisation’s shadow and the source of future romanticisms.

 

In the new urban spaces, the former peasants remained outside the state. Winning the franchise was a long, hard-fought struggle. However, the entitlements, the vote, the freedoms they secured; all these political goods came at a hefty price: the devaluation of the political sphere to which they were being admitted and the acceptance of a vicious autonomy of the economic sphere (over which they had no control) from the political sphere (over which they had gained some control). Feudal juridical privilege and political monopoly of the gentry was thus replaced by the monopoly of economic advantage. Their citi-zenship was bought at the expense of its devaluation, not to mention the lost access to the ancestral lands.

 

Meanwhile, back at the farm, the fenced off land acquired a brand new feature: a price! Having been fully commodified for the first time in history, it was ripe for its own industrial revolution; a process that led almost seamlessly to today’s industrial scale farming, genetically engineered crops, horizontal drilling (that extracts from the land not just crops but natural gas as well), etc. Fences erected on a green and pleasant land begat modern cities and transformed the land into a rural version of the factory. The country-city dialectic had entered new territory.

 

3. The liberal individual

 

During that Great Transformation, and while the former peasants struggled to carve out new spaces and identities in the cities they were forming, the inevitable ideological cover of the whole enterprise was taking shape. It came in the form of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s unsuspecting hero. Crusoe’s solitude and rational deployment of available resources became the model upon which the bourgeois thinker modelled himself. Crusoe was not just a shipwrecked survivor but, potentially, a colonial farmer striving to tame nature and the natives; an army commander caught out behind enemy lines; a former banker that left the rat race, seeking solace in organic farming; indeed, all valiant entrepreneurs or modern consumers who deploy their means in a manner that best serves their ‘sovereign’ ends. So, while the vast majority of ‘individuals’ formed a mass swarming the factories robot-like, and the land was farmed under increasingly Taylorist rules, the liberal mindset fantasised that we are all different versions of the splendidly solitary Crusoe, doing our best to assign limited resources to competing uses. An archipelago of isolated selves in an ocean of trade and industry.

 

The Great Irony behind the Great Transformation was that liberal dreams of selfhood were erected on a gigantic metaphorical fence, not dissimilar to the Enclosures that disconnected the masses from the rural landscape and became the metaphor for negative liberty,[7] for instrumental rationality,[8] for institutionalised racism,[9] and for the definitively male Homo Economicus.[10] Robinson Crusoe reflected all these at once, simultaneously isolated, marginalised, solitary and at the centre of 19th commercial society, not to mention Mrs Thatcher’s ‘enterprise culture’ later in the piece.

 

4. Crisis

 

The latest transformation of the liberal individual happened as the 1970s were passing the baton onto the 1980s, with the ‘liberation’ of Wall Street from the constraints the New Dealers had placed it under, as well as by the Big Bang that turned the City of London into an autonomous state within (a powerless but increasingly authoritarian) state. As financialisation was sweeping everything in its wake, the financiers’ misleading rhetoric (of ‘riskless risk’, ‘new paradigms’ and some fictitious ‘great moderation’) had a counterpart in the cultural realm: it was a postmodern romanticism terribly enthused with the marginal but ever so coolly indifferent to exploitation, alienation, inequality. Idyllic landscapes gave their place to the pleasures of the shopping mall, rural retreats were judged on their resale value, Richard Branson celebrated brands at the expense of industry, Nature was reduced to a playground of former radicals seeking green credentials.

 

So, when this juggernaut crashed into reality, sometime in 2008, all that seemed solid melted into thin air. The credit crunch chewed into the fantasies of the new paradigm according to which finance could achieve anything but hard work and collective action were for suckers. On the ashes of the old promises of a shareowners’ democracy, of a global village, of new vistas of gratification and of an emergent developing world, an unperturbed Establishment achieved a cruel, self-serving Restoration: self-defeating austerity, only partially mitigated by loose money from our central banks, reflated some bubbles but left everything else deflated. Before the long winter of our discontent had shown any propensity to retreat, the constant chatter about recovery ended up with enriched macroeconomic indicators and impoverished citizens.

 

Six years have passed since the crash of 2008 but the veil of gloom refuses to lift. Saving the jolly blip of the Occupy movement, and the few moments when citizens seemed determined to hold the powers-that-be to account, the world has returned to a sadder version of its pre-2008 self. We still flock the shopping malls, only with far less of the mindless joy of yesteryear. Like pilgrims who have lost our faith, we resemble the lost souls that, once upon a time, fenced off the land, flocked into the towns to turn them into slum-cities. Only this time, we are better dressed, housed, educated. Still, we train the same empty gaze upon a material world with which we no longer have a human connection.

 

As the 2008 crisis constantly shape-shifts, metamorphosing into new forms of depravity, our ‘centre’ has been displaced and our ‘margins’ have lost their postmodern appeal.

 

5. Rural sanctuaries or soothing illusions?

 

In economic terms, one recession looks quiet like another – at least on my profession’s diagrams. Alas, ‘our’ recession is one of a kind. The world does not surprise itself very often. It did so once in 1929, then again in 2008. The Grapes of Wrath were overcome, after a decade of rural dustbowls and factory wastelands, by industrial scale warfare. What if, as one preys and hopes, nothing of the sort disrupts our misery now? What if the price we must pay for keeping a modern Great Depression under wraps is permanent, slow-burning crisis? Might the answer be in escaping to utopias, like the puritans once did? And if so, where would our Mayflowers take us to?

 

Sir Thomas More set his Utopia (or, more precisely, Eutopia) on an island perched in the middle of the Atlantic. Robinson Crusoe came later to encapsulate, on just such an island, the archetypal liberal individual’s perfect sovereignty (and less than perfect autonomy). But what about us? Should we stay put and fight against a sick yet impermeable socio-economic order? Or should we seek sanctuary in hitherto undiscovered pockets of potential self-government somewhere in the sticks? Are such sanctuaries to be thought of as permanent homes or as laboratories in which we manufacture the blueprint of an alternative to late capitalism, before importing it back into mainstream society, like an anti-viral developed from Amazonian raw materials that saves humanity from a lethal epidemic?

 

Speaking personally, I must confess that when I get to sit still for a while on the veranda of our hilltop house on the isle of Aegina, overlooking the Aegean and surrounded by olive trees and ancient vineyards, the temptation to escape into rurality is immense. A mischievous flight to rural life seems momentarily possible as the ultimate form of liberty: freedom from the market, and a wormhole that leads billions of light years away from the subterfuge that masks our harsh realities. However, just as quickly as these thoughts emerge, they are punctured by sobering reminders that rural dreams bring out what is foolish as well as what is natural in humanity. A little touch of pastoralism always tickled a relationship that badly needed to be organic without coming even close to being organic.

 

Is a capitalist-free zone possible in the countryside, courtesy of the green surroundings, the clean air, the sparser population? Can we, at least, forge capitalism with a human face more readily there than in urban centres? I submit not. Rural areas today are either industrial farmlands in cahoots with heavy industry or they are eager to become precisely that. The ancient dialectic between the city and the countryside has long ago turned into a dialectic between big industry and industrial farming; with the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy a splendid case in point (and the best example of the unholy alliance between oligopolistic heavy industry and entrepreneurial farmers).

 

But what about unspoilt, hitherto un-commodified rural areas populated by refugees from the cities whose purpose is to create new communities on new principles? One only needs to pose the question to turn pessimistic about the answer. Utopias of the past have little encouragement to offer the careful student of their histories. Might technology make a difference, as the Internet now offers the new utopians an opportunity to remain grounded in a broader humanity while struggling to work out different socio-economic arrangements locally? Might a modern Jean de Florette survive the vagaries of rural life, as his connectedness to the world at large provides a rare balance between access to the stream of new knowledge and the leeway to try out new social relations of production on relatively cheap land and with hand-picked partners?

 

In the past twenty plus years I have witnessed several budding utopias. One was the Blue Mountains community that I mentioned in the introduction. Another was a Seattle-based, self-proclaimed ‘boss-less’, multi-billion dollar worth, video game company that tried to emulate the principles of spontaneous self-government within a corporation. However disparate they might have been, these experiments had one thing in common: fragility and a capacity to swing in a jiffy from realms of free association to dominions of small-minded despotism; from seamless efficiency to chaos, and even collapse.[11]

 

During the Middle Ages, the Nazi occupation, the worst of the Great Depression in the 1930s or the Great Recession more recently, sanctuaries have proven of colossal importance. Mother’s tales convinced me of that long ago. Whether rural or urban, a ‘space of one’s own’ (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf) can be a godsend. However, the hope that such sanctuaries will function as the laboratories of a more decent future may tragically turn out to have been nothing more than the ruse of suburban post-romanticism. Hardly a threat to make Wall Street functionaries, or other purveyors of human misery, tremble in their Wellies.

 


NOTES



[1] I am referring, of course, to Claude Berri’s 1986 film.

[2] “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” K. Marx and F. Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter 1.

[3] The great difference between China and India, or Nigeria, or Brazil for that matter, is precisely that: Whereas in China the state installs the sewers, the running water and the electricity grid before houses are built, elsewhere urbanisation yields slums which act as poverty traps for their dwellers. Slums may then develop, eventually, into middle class loci, but it takes centuries for this to happen, as the history of Birmingham and Manchester reveals.

[4] Khaldun, the 14th century historian and philosopher of history, described vividly the dialectic between the city and the surrounding countryside, depicting the decline of regimes as the bonds of solidarity weaken following economic success. See Ibn Khaldun (1967). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, translated by Franz Rosenthal, Bollingen Series XLIII. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[5] See John Barrell (1980). The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[6] David Ricardo was one of classical political economy’s giants. He defined economic rent as payments to an economic agent that exceeded the minimum necessary to keep her producing. That ‘excess’ was considered a waste, from society’s viewpoint; a ‘leakage’ from the collective effort to mechanise (and, implicitly, to urbanise) production. Thus, landlords, who collected the bulk of economic rent, were for Ricardo the villains of the piece; putting the brakes on progress and thus impeding the emergence of the Good Society.

[7] Negative liberty is defined as freedom from interference. It is as if the self is separated from ‘others’ by a fence and is, therefore, deemed free to the extent that ‘others’ do not trespass into his or her well-marked territory. Robinson Crusoe is thus fully free to the extent that his will is not subject to constraints imposed by ‘others’. See Isaiah Berlin (1969). ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, reprinted in Four Essays on Liberty, London: Oxford University Press

[8] To be instrumentally free means to be efficient in your deployment of your available means in the pursuit of given, current and sovereign ends. In this sense, instrumental Reason has no capacity to pass judgment on the reasonableness of one’s desires. It can be defined starkly, mathematically, as a form of efficiency; as a fence diving the Kingdom of Reason from the unchartered territories of muddled, barbaric reasoning. Robinson Crusoe is, in many ways, instrumental rationality’s apotheosis (just as Friday is the ‘other’ whose rationality remains suspect).

[9] European colonists, upon disembarking on a distant shore (e.g. in Africa, in Australia, in New Zealand) would immediately fence off land that they sought to appropriate and persecute native ‘trespassers’. The Fence which helps define instrumental reason and negative liberty (see the two previous notes) also proves an effective colonial instrument; a bulwark of the racism that was institutionalised shortly afterwards.

[10] A hyper-rational automaton that does as he pleases and likes what he does.

[11] More recently, I looked at an organic farm in the Peloponnese, run by an assortment of wonderful, well-meaning escapees from all over Europe. Sadly, that experience did little to shift my pessimism.