Perhaps it was something that I only have recently set my attention to notice, but it seems that there are more and more people in the online permaculture community that are towing the line of Ron Paul, libertarianism and the like. I find this particularly strange because from my perspective these ideological perspectives are principally anti-permaculture. While certainly the position against US military intervention, and the notion of reducing the power the State has over local communities and livelihoods is appealing, that is about as far as I would argue it has any legitimate correspondence to permaculture. This is not to claim that those who practice permaculture design and activism subscribe to any particular ideology; it ranges radically from patchouli-smelling New Agers, to Latin American Marxist revolutionaries, to Christian-capitalist survivalists. Nor is it to argue that there ought to be any ideological unity among those who use the design tool of permaculture. However I do think that there are some clear conceptual non-sequiturs and important ethical implications that follow; and some practices that need to be called-out and critiqued in order to have accountability in the movement (if in fact it can be called that). What this article provides is a critique of the explicit advocacy for capitalism in permaculture, and an argument that perhaps socialism might be a more appropriate political economic foundation for this ethics-based design practice.
I write this with a serious personal concern. As a permaculture designer and community organizer in my own region I have a particular desire to advance the sort of vision I have of the future I would like to live in. Especially as a youth feeling the pressures of simultaneous crises that have been dropped in our lap violently (without consent), I feel the need to be very clear about what I find unjust, and what I think could have terrible implications for our movement and the world in general. Essentially, I do not want to be involved in a movement that advances the cause of reinforcing capitalism, or the centralized power of the nation state, or any combination of the two. If this is the direction that permaculture as a movement is going, I am going to simply take what I do and call it something else.
Note on Politics in Permaculture
This article is in no way meant to polemically implore all those who do permaculture to share the same political ideology. But it is not going to ignore the presence of ideology among those who do permaculture. Attempts often to simply hide “politics” from permaculture in fact perform an especially political trick, which is essentially to erase critical discussions on flash-point issues and replace it with ones that are deemed apolitical by the political elite structure that defines the very notion of truth about how society works. For instance, instead of talking about whether the ethics of permaculture necessarily entail equitable redistribution within the third ethic of “return the surplus”/”fair share”, we feel happy to talk about what books are best to buy for specific information, or where to buy particular root stock for grafting, or how much a permaculture design certificate should cost. This contrast is both stark and obvious. Among permaculturalists people seem to be far more comfortable about supporting the all-to-political actions of buying stuff, and far too uncomfortable about radically challenging concepts of property and markets. This is not to paint the differences as entirely so cohesively binary, but simply to show that there are somethings that would be considered political, and somethings that are not. Radical social change is considered “political”, while conformity to the contemporary political economic order is taken for granted. The realization seems to be missing the point that not challenging the existing political and economic orders in our society is in fact a political decision, especially when it is having such a dramatic impact on the wellbeing of our fellow humans and the planet.
To be perfectly fair, I do not think that the majority of the international permaculture community take such things for granted. I do however find that there are some that do who need to be called-out on it. For instance when Paul Wheaton on the Permies podcast says explicitly that he wants to avoid discussions about politics that may be divisive, and essentially squash any discussions of re-distribution inherent to the “fair share” ethic. But then he turns around and talks about how industrial agriculture is inherently evil. I certainly agree, but the line where he is drawing the political-apolitical divide is absolutely dubious. I will repeat the refrain of critical social theorists, social justice activists, and the philosophical history of feminism that the personal is absolutely political. In essence, there is nothing that is not political. Our choices to label something as apolitical, thus representing it as “natural” comes at the cost of delegitimizing someone else’s struggle against things in society they are challenged with. We have a seriously perverted sense of politics in North America where anything that has to do with the ability to make individual choices is apolitical in nature (they just need to make better choices), whereas the superficial mechanics of government is what constitutes politics entirely. For more on this topic please see my previous blog on the difference between politics and partisanship.
Capitalisms: Corporatist and Libertarian
There seems to have emerged within the past fifty years two clear ideological definitions of capitalism that are used in different ways, often by the same people for different purposes. They are the creation of unrecognized class differences, but only superficially differ in what are essentially their support for the institutions of private property and rights to access markets. These two capitalisms that allow proponents to navigate the stormy waters of political economics are: corporatist capitalism and libertarian capitalism. They are essentially the same thing split in two in order to reaffirm the legitimacy of capital in the face of those who bare the costs of the system.
Corporatist capitalism is essentially a narrative pejorative termed by detracting capitalists that see large multinational corporations in cahoots with crony politicians in order to take away the freedom of freedom-loving Americans. Historically, this is quite accurate, corporate cronyism between private enterprise and government is rife everywhere around the world. The power of the class of people that have disproportional access to the ownership of financial, property and productive assets has had a destructive impact on the operation state-embodied institutions of democracy. This is done through the ability of capitalists to access the favour of politicians not through their ability to buy it (though this has certainly happened quite a bit), but most significantly their ability to hold the policy objectives of politicians hostage as long as they are in control of the allocation of economic resources. Hypothetically, a politician may have a consensus mandate from their electorate not to go to war, the interests of large corporations however for free market access to a place like Nicaragua or Grenada bends the favour of politicians towards intervention in order to protect the economic “interests of Americans”. There is a fundamental proto-fascist element at play here. One that directs the interest of capitalist elites through a nationalist narratives in order to direct a larger working and middle class population to go to war, when it is not in their class interest because they will never benefit from the economic exploits and will likely be the ones paying for it with their life and limb. This is the sort of state-capitalist monster that depicted in stories by both Tea Party “libertarians” and Occupy activists. It is also opposed in what most permaculturalists express as their political interests, which is evident in anti-Monsanto, anti-war, environmentalist stuff that is posted overwhelmingly within the permaculture community.
Libertarian capitalism is the other kind of capitalism that is a little more difficult to define, but is one that certainly is present within the permaculture movement. Just like any other ideology, it is a narrative, a story of what the speaker seems to express as the ideal future they envision. We all have these stories, everyone; there is no one without ideology. Libertarian capitalism is the narrative that has emerged in numerous forms all holding several key values. Where the capitalism of large multinational corporations colluding with the state to take away freedoms was reviled by many Americans, libertarian capitalism opposed this by saying that what is needed is less state, less corporations, and more individual property rights, freedoms and unregulated market access. Large multinational corporations, neoclassical economists and federal reserve regulators have tended to agreed with this. Milton Friedman, the “Austrian School” of libertarian capitalism (Von Mises, Rothbard, Hayek, etc.), and monetarist regulators put in place under the regime of Ronal Reagan in the USA all held the same fundamental belief in unregulated market economics. Included in this ideology was the roll-back of government regulation, social services, and stricter enforcement of property rights. This resulted in lower corporate income taxes, a flatter income tax rate (not a reduction for the middle class), slashing of government programmes, federal deregulation of commercial (non-charter) financial institutions, attack on the power of labour organizations, and the evolution of international developmental policy from the provision of aid, towards loans under the condition of structural adjustment programmes. The United States under this “neoliberal” capitalist regime lent support for paramilitary organizations internationally to destabilize and overthrow liberal, social democratic and socialist regimes internationally, specifically in places where the United States had a geopolitical economic interest. This regime’s complete gutting of the welfare state in North America and Britain, as well as the developmentalist agenda abroad lead to the creation of a unprecedented economic growth in the USA. But it also lead to the unprecedented concentration of wealth.
As a result of the deregulation of financial markets (and violent re-regulation supporting free markets), new and innovative financial instruments were created that could direct massive amounts of capital to wherever it was needed, where maximum profits could be returned. The more money that few hands owned, the greater the riskiness of investments needed to be in order to return higher profits (higher risk has higher premiums). In order to finance riskier projects such as the financing of subprime mortgages in the United States, investments needed to be chopped-up and split among diverse investment packages, and distributed to more diverse financial institutions. Once this limit to the ability to finance risk was reached, these institutions realized that they could re-insure the losses that could happen to each other. At the same time greater technology was needed to make the sorts of transaction quick enough to allow such an elaborate systems. Eventually a financial system was created where virtually anything internationally that could be financed was partially owned by all financially institutions, which were all insuring the potential losses of every other financial institution. In 2008 when the home owners in the USA failed to make their mortgage payments because job growth was waning due to low consumer confidence, and skepticism in the actual value of the properties they owned burst, the whole financial system of the USA internationally pretty much collapsed. This sent a shockwave internationally that is still being felt in the various European debt crises, and current recession experienced in China. Whether the market will ever fully recover is uncertain, but it is almost universally recognized that it will never look like the free market financial environment that began under Reagan.
Libertarian capitalism at this point had an internal split. After the crisis there still remained an Ancien Regime of monetarists arguing that the crisis was a result of state spending and over-taxation. These people had very little traction after the crisis, but has re-emerged in the movement backing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in the current presidential election. But the discourse of this movement remains sticky with neoconservative military interventionism around the issues of a nuclear-armed Iran and “terrorism”. It is, in essence, Bush-light. In 2008 the Tea Party movement emerged in the USA espousing “paleo-conservative” constitutionalism. This was essentially an ideological reading of American history that argued for a return for what they thought was the founding ideologies of the United States. The origins of the USA they argue was created by devoutly Protestant free market capitalists escaping the tax tyranny of the United Kingdom. In one movement, this narrative conflates Protestant righteousness to low taxes, in a narrative of escaping tyranny through Christ and private property rights.
There was all the while a fringe of free market fundamentalists that went beyond the “minarchist” concession of libertarians for some government to protect property rights and defend against “invaders”. While not explicitly Christian, this narrative was fiercely opposed to any form of state. It manifest as a movement in two forms. Those survivalists that are in fact fiercely (thought not all) Christian, either anticipating the rapture of Christ’s return, or immanent collapse of capitalism that would result in a flood of lawlessness or immigrants to ruin the righteous law-abiding order enjoyed by white middle-class people in the rural Mid-West of the United States and Canada. These people mostly advocate for a return to the gold standard (a view shared among many other types of libertarians), insistence of owning guns, and the fierce defense of property rights. In a likely unconscious throwback to the Boston Tea Party, they also co-opted aesthetics of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (North America). How they do not recognize the irony of this co-option within their agenda of racism against immigrants and Indigenous people escapes me. In many cases the “don’t tread on me” rhetoric that was shared between the Tea Party minarchists, “oath keepers” and “anarcho-capitalists” alike, but it was the specifically anti-state libertarians that formed militias and survival compounds. There were also more academically minded radical libertarian capitalists that remained on the peripheries of the Libertarian and Conservative Parties in the USA and Canada. They gathered in small groups on campuses, party associations and libertarian think tanks reading obscure works from the Austrian school of economics about the qualitative valuation of money, arguing simplistic political implications to Nietzsche’s philosophy, and justifying their individualist “will to power” as a creatively productive force inspired by Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
This brief and simplistic historical typology of capitalism offers one important point of clarification. When I point out the ideological bent of some permaculturalists towards capitalism, it is overwhelmingly based in the category and history of the last few categories. That is, the prevailing ideology of capitalism found among some permaculturalists rests within the realm of radical libertarian capitalism. However there is no way to tell which camp, if statically occupied, within which they rest. This is not to say that there are no proponents to the other forms of capitalism. However those who could be identified as Keynesian Welfare State liberals or social democrats tend to be the ones that perform the politics-denying trick. They are often political; openly political, but don’t translate it entirely into permaculture. In some cases it seems that it even manifests in a form of capitalist denial. That is, they aspire towards a form of market exchange economy, but with a local currency. The local currency, it is suggested, will prevent the concentration of wealth and allow communities to form a division of labour that conforms to the “triple bottom line” social entrepreneurship that claims to be responsible to the environment and compassionate towards society. One often gets into conversations with those advocating local currency or transferable credits, and finds them arguing that it is not in fact capitalism. Rather, it is a form of market economics that is static in growth and valuing of society and the environment. There are also those advocates for fair trade or the regulation of markets by the state. While they may have an image in their mind that this is a compassionate improvement of capitalism, it is in fact based in the same destructive tendencies that fundamentally drive capitalism and market systems right from the start. Having positive intentions though does not guarantee positive results.
Local Currencies And Market Reform
It needs to be made clear, both local currency initiatives and the reform of market systems are absolutely a form of capitalism. And these supposedly reformed forms of capitalism are in no way different than any supposedly more destructive form. The denial of this is what I want to call ‘capitalism-denial’. This denial does not in all cases deny that capitalism is being advocated or even see capitalism as a bad thing, but what it does in any case is take things that are certainly capitalism and hide the fact that it is capitalism making it seem as if it is some form of political economic alternative. An example of this is the Fair Trade certification. While it claims to offer a better wage for those working in the Global South, it is still party to the process of extracting value from the production of workers and concentrating it as surplus value in the hands of product vendors. The myth of the living wage is as discussed by Slavoj Zizek in his book First as Tragedy then as Farce an insincere kind of humanitarianism. Rather than removing the cause of exploitation, it merely softens its edge to make it more palatable, which defers the likelihood of the political economic conditions of production actually changing.
While it needs to be recognized that the intentions behind such intentions are in the interest of progressive social change, it needs to be recognized that it is misguided if it is to deny that it is capitalism. There are a variety of arguments often made that try to dodge this. The primary argument is that capitalism is defined by the desire for profit and growth, which is conducted through the tool of market systems. This argument does the same apolitics trick described above. It renders the idea of market simply as a tool that is neither good nor bad, and that the political aspects of this that are capitalist is the intention to concentrate wealth. They will argue that a compassionate market system can be created through the development of local exchange regimes or in the encouragement of the local economy. This ignores the history and mechanics of the establishment of a market system to begin with, which will be discussed below. The other minor argument involves a simultaneous trick of rendering down the only political economic possibilities as only between various manifestations of “democratic” market systems, or some dystopian Stalinist form of state communism. In this story, given that the choices are limited, if one does not prefer capitalism, they must simply be against “liberty”.
How Markets Are Created
One concept that is take for granted in the idea of local currencies is how such a market of exchange is created. There is a robust range of literature on this throughout the social sciences and among social justice activists fighting against the violence of markets. Basically, markets form when some mechanism is agreed upon by a group of people that the value of one good or service is comparable to another. This may seem abstract, but it is in fact very simple. I can assume that this apple that I am holding has a value comparable to others, and that if I were to give it to someone else I am then entitled to something of like value from them such as an orange. This is the foundational logical-ethical mechanics of a market, and it is important to stress that it is only one sort of social arrangement that can take place between the apple person, the orange person, the apple and the orange. The possibilities are only limited by the potential combination of people and things, and all potential functions between all of them.
A market system can then extend to a greater economy through informal exchange between goods. People can gather and negotiate cooperatively or coercively the nature of value inherent to the exchange. They can alternatively cooperate in the foundation of moral code, norm, or organization meant to enforce a static or predictably changing model of social-material interaction. Another important thing to stress is that any such arrangement formal or informal that is rendered static (temporarily or unchangingly) is what is called an institution. The practice of exchange under the implicit assumption that the values between things can be equated, and that giving one thing to another automatically debts them to return an equal amount of value to you is the foundational institutional arrangement of market systems. If this was all that there was to the creation of a market system, then perhaps advocates of local currencies would be correct to point out its distinction from capitalism. However it is not the only institution necessary to create a local currency.
A currency emerges as the formal institutional arrangement of exchange where the value between things are no longer interpersonally negotiated. Instead, it is fixed into the socially agreed upon value of the currency. Agreement upon this currency value involves a more complex process of gaining consensus from the entire market about the value of things. Except that it is not consensus in the democratic sense, it is consensus in that those who have the greatest control over needed resources can assert a price by making their demands upon the market to value the goods they posses according to their will. If all people in a market possessed exactly the same number of the same things, then such consensus would in fact be democratic. But in such a case, a system of exchange wouldn’t even be needed. So already at this point we see that the very creation of currency exists as the result of a purpose to coerce value upon participants in a market based on their power to exploit inequality politically in order to accumulate value. Already there is a sense of entitlement that either by virtue or by accident of possession, that having more necessarily entails in a market system that you deserve more.
A second phenomena also emerges in the establishment of markets is the creation of the institution of private property. In order to have a system of exchange, the participants first need to have a static sense that those who posses something are naturally entrusted in a relationship of property with the thing. That is, having something and owning something automatically becomes the same thing. If I were to occupy a space for my livelihood or dwelling, and there happens to be a tree in the garden, the process of creating the institution of property involves me justifying to all market participants that because I work this garden, all things in the garden are exclusively mine to consume or exchange forever. This assumes that the benefits that can be enjoyed from the thing are experienced exclusively by the person claiming ownership. It also assumes that the act of consuming, conserving or exchanging something has no impact of the property rights of others. But as we know in the tree example is that they perform many functions that extend beyond the exclusive use of the owner. They act as food for pollinators, habitat for animals, shade for surrounding space, oxygen creator for the atmosphere, etc. The point is that the tree creates things that are not exclusively enjoyed to the owner, and furthermore it contributes to the fundamental conditions people need in order to maintain the most basic processes of living. So here we see by the exclusivity of property rights that the static ownership of a good violates the potential benefits others may collectively gain from their use of it. This is the result of the false logic of the institution of property that assumes linear and static arrangements between people, actions and things. At its core it is irreconcilable with the observable and diverse logics of ecosystems, or even physics. It is purely a social institution of coercion antithetical at its core to the spirit of direct democracy.
It is these two conditions of currency and property rights that act as the foundation of capitalism. Often people stop at the description of a local economy or alternative currency with the mechanics of democratic negotiations, but this completely ignores the foundational processes of theft through property rights and the coercion through currency in a situation of material inequality. Ownership of property and its stability then require additional institutions of enforcing inequality involving physical violence, normative cultural coercion or the enclosure of previously common property. In order to support such institutions, growth in the accumulation in value is needed. This requires the owners of property to rent out their property to those without in order to produce more property to sell to those in need in exchange for more value. This process involves those with property stealing value from those who lack property in order to maintain the system of property ownership. Otherwise those with less would simply refuse to participate in a system that allows them less, and they would simply violate the claims to property by the ones possessing more. This is the fundamental injustice that is central to even the most rudimentary market systems. Why is it acceptable for those with property to steal value from those without property, but it is wrong for those without property to steal value (or eventually with refusal towards reconciliation, the theft of property: ie. revolution) from those with property? If the things we find most unjust about capitalism begins within the very mechanics of markets, why is it that there is an attempt to make the two seem different? As we see capitalism and markets are inextricably linked and cannot be separated.
Libertarian Socialist Alternatives
The fundamental rejection of private property, markets and capitalism is generally recognized and appreciated as socialism, anarchism or communism, or combinations of them all. These are ideologies that are interested in confronting the social injustices that result from the mechanics of markets. Few however seem to understand that socialism offers a far broader range of political economic possibilities than that of market institutions where property and currency assume autonomous agency (ie. acting independently of human will), rather than conforming to the pre-determined outcomes of a market structure, which forms a morality around the machine of market exchange. Socialism can begin with morals and work towards the desired political economic arrangement of participants. While, socialism is not automatically democratic, it holds greater potential for greater democracy. Socialism does not begin with any institutions besides a recognition of the commons. The commons is the idea that things must be used in consideration for the common welfare. This can either be governed centrally, democratically, or not at all. Most people who refuse to entertain the socialist alternative only really think that the commons can be governed by autocratic centrality or in violent chaos.
In specifying a democratic form of communism or socialism, total democratic control over the commons is institutionalized. That is, resource use and distribution becomes subject to popular will. There is a common conception that markets are an apolitical institution beholden to the democracy of consumer choice. This is simply not true. Markets as demonstrated above are simply an ideological system enforced statically without the democratic consent of participants. It is possibly the greatest success of capitalists that they have made the very concept of market not only an apolitical thing, but one that is assumed to be the very workings of nature. Socialism on the other hand makes no fundamental assumptions other than the protection of the commons from the coercion of property and markets. Done democratically, it can bring the very operation of economics under the direct will of people without property. Rather than automatically assuming that those with more ought to have more, it puts the decision to those participating to decide who ought to receive what. If the group desires equity and social justice then allocation decisions can put resources in the hands of those who need it, rather than those who claim to deserve it.
Permaculture and Socialism
If I were to compare the two–market systems and socialism–it is hard for me to see how markets fully conform to the permaculture ethics of people care, earth care and fair share/return the surplus. If permaculture sets out to deliberately create systems that conform to these, or any ethics, than it would seem preferable to institutionalize ways in which the intent of these ethics can translate directly into the the system that is created. The only pre-existing structure that permaculture needs to work around then is the mechanics of the planet, not that constructed by those who own property to continue accumulating property. I am not arguing that socialism is the only alternative to capitalism, only that all capitalisms in its foundation are all the same. And rather, I offer libertarian socialism as a possible the alternative.
As many permaculturalists I do not desire greater control or initiatives from the state, but I am not willing to perpetuate the lie that markets are an apolitical non-institution that functions like nature. It does not function like nature, it is absolutely an institution (even as an informal systems), and it is essentially a form of autocratic economic governance. Socialism is an institution, and it is not perfect, but done carefully, and planned correctly it will not destroy our earth, it does not automatically create social inequality, and it does not necessitate the existence of a coercive state structure.
It seems odd to me that among permaculturalists–who attempt to deliberately design, plan and carefully implement systems that conform to people, planet and the health of the relationship as a whole–are not interested more in systems that attempt to do this directly without the barrier of an invisibly coercive man-made structure. One that works inherently against the desired outcomes of permaculture.