This is a review of Simon Fairlie’s new book, Going to Seed, out on Feb 10th – his ‘counterculture memoir’ – although at times I’ll unapologetically veer into (hopefully relevant) political rambling.
Simon (SF from here on) has edited the Ecologist, helped found the Ecological Land Co-op, written several books, been involved with road protests and land-based communities, provided advice on the planning system, continues to edit The Land magazine and now runs a scythe shop and a microdairy.
He used to run courses on how to set up and run a smallholding for Lowimpact when we were based at Redfield Community in Buckinghamshire. I’ve since sought his advice, interviewed him, subscribed to his superb magazine, (to which I’ve also contributed), and he’s our scything specialist. There are lots of things I didn’t know about his extremely diverse life story that I’ve discovered in this fascinating book.
He’s one of the most accomplished people I’ve ever met at looking straight to the core of things – at understanding power and the historical mission to decentralise and disperse it.
The book – history
For younger folk who want to understand how the world got the way it is, and what those seeking alternatives were up to in the decades before they were born, this book will enlighten them; and for oldies it’s a trip down memory lane.
It spans a period that includes the Vietnam war, 60s counterculture, the Situationists, the ‘Back to the Land’ movement, squatting, the miners’ strike, road protests, Greenham Common and more recently the rise of the environmental movement, and especially concerns around climate change.
The book – his story
I didn’t know that SF went to Westminster School (or that Shane MacGowan of the Pogues also did!), and now I see him as a little bit posher than I did before. But although I grew up in the Black Country and left school at 16 to work in factories and on building sites, and SF admitted that throughout his younger years he was sheltered from the working-class, lots of the things that he’s done were very familiar to me – rough travelling, manual work, land-based communities, then trying to help change the system, because we could see from an early age how damaging this one is.
Even his description of hitch-hiking was very familiar. I must have hitched hundreds of thousands of miles when I was younger, all over the world; and his rules for successful hitchhiking were spot on.
I also share his disdain for horribly complex academic tracts by Marxist and other flavours of academics that purport to support the working-class, using a language almost designed to repel them; and I was also switched on by Susan George’s How the Other Half Dies in the 70s, as well as by Fromm, Marcuse, Foucault and others.
His story is presented with honesty, and without schmaltz.
What has he contributed?
At various points in the book, I can hear SF saying: ‘here’s my life – I wonder if I made a difference’. Well, he really did. He’s probably influenced more people to do useful things, to challenge centralised power and to build community than almost anyone I know. If you sometimes think that what you’re doing is futile, you have to remember that you never know who you’re influencing – and he certainly switched me on to lots of things.
His attempts at semi-self-sufficiency when younger sounded a bit of a shambles – but he understood why access to land is so important, which led to his setting up Chapter 7 (providing planning advice), writing Low-impact Development, setting up the Ecological Land Co-op and editing the Land.
His philosophy will have influenced many people. He saw clearly that the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ was a myth, and that GDP growth causes ecological destruction – in all cases. There’s absolutely no such thing as ‘green growth’ (why can can so few people see that GDP growth increases spending power, and that there’s nothing to prevent this increase being spent on material things, which is why material resource extraction, energy use, carbon emissions and waste keep rising relentlessly?). Growth in Africa? Sure – but what do Americans want more of? What most people see as our saviour, or at least inevitable – GDP growth – will be the death of us. Eternal growth until civilisation collapses is only inevitable in this rotten system, in which the choice is between damaging growth or recession.
And he doesn’t fall for the ‘we’ve decoupled growth from these emissions and this pollution’. Our consumption remains high, so all that’s happened is that those emissions and that pollution has been exported to the other side of the world, where our consumer goods, clothes and a lot of our food is now produced.
So what’s his favoured approach to building a new system?
Eventually it seems we got to the same place politically too – yes, the A-word. If you’re unsure about what anarchism actually is, here’s a link to some thoughts by the late, great David Graeber. You might be surprised.
I tend not to dwell on it myself because it’s so far from the Overton Window. SF doesn’t care – he puts the dreaded word in a chapter title. I’m wondering whether we can reclaim it – drag it into the Overton Window. I always correct people who use anarchy when they mean chaos (because anarchy is the exact opposite of chaos – anarchy is the most organised a society could be). It always seems that the cleverest people I meet describe themselves as anarchists – SF being no exception. Anarchists see that it’s the centralisation of power that’s the problem, not who’s holding it. Centralised power can always be seized or bought, and it always is. Who thinks that governments hold all the power, really? They’re junior partners at best.
I recommend Kevin Carson’s flavour of anarchism today – mutualising and decentralising the economy, and therefore power structures. And it’s this mutualism and decentralisation that really encapsulates the anarchist philosophy.
SF bemoans the fact that good things always end up shit – like Glastonbury festival, and market towns decimated by corporate shopping malls and supermarkets. But they don’t – or at least they don’t have to. It’s only in this system – rivalrous (everyone trying to climb the greasy pole) and organised top-down – that it’s inevitable. But he goes on to say a couple of things with which I heartily agree. First, that he’s developed ‘a less ideologically-rigid critique of modern capitalism’ – exactly. We just move towards something that doesn’t concentrate wealth or have to grow forever, by decentralising and mutualising. Second, he also mentions the need to ‘transcend’ this economy fixated on consumption – which is a position that we share at Lowimpact.
However, taking a radical position, although necessary, can often feel tiring and futile, as the corporate juggernaut rolls on. But as SF points out, radical thinkers can ‘shift the boundaries of the discourse’ – i.e. move more radical ideas towards or into the Overton Window. There’s even a name for it, which was new to me: the ‘radical flank effect’.
Physical community vs digital tech
In the final chapter, SF makes it clear that he’s not a fan of digital tech. He criticises Bitcoin, understandably, as it uses absurd amounts of electricity, is used mainly for speculation rather than trade, and does nothing to prevent wealth concentration. Although crypto fans claim that Bitcoin decentralises power, in fact all it does is changes where it’s centralised. And the move towards AI and the metaverse almost definitely ‘lays the human race open to greater existential evil than it could ever provide in the way of benefits’. I’d like to first agree in some ways, then disagree in others.
Yes, access to real, physical, non-digital land has to be the starting point. If ordinary people have it, it’s much more difficult to exploit them – they can always provide shelter, food, energy and water for themselves – which is why corporations find it difficult to get Africans to work in sweatshops, as many of them have access to a family farm, even if they live in an urban area. I now live in a town with a thriving farmers’ market, from which I can get organic, non-corporate food with very short supply chains – something that’s impossible without access to land for smallholders and potential smallholders. The more I think about it, the more I believe that farmers’ markets are essential. Food is something we can decorporatise incrementally – one food item per week, say – unlike housing, banking, cars, electricity etc. Farmers’ markets make us think about food, local economies, land ownership, community, satisfying work and pesticides. And don’t give me any nonsense about farmers’ markets being expensive, middle-class luxuries – they charge fair prices for food and other goods. If we want local, non-corporate, organic food and other goods, then we have to pay a proper price for them – otherwise we get poisons and cruelty and land concentration and slave labour and damaged communities. I’m going to be interviewing SF soon about whether it’s possible and desirable for every town to have a microdairy (as one example of local food production) in its hinterland – or maybe several.
Techies tend to see digital solutions for all of our political and economic problems, and ignore the fact that our most vital necessities are physical – food, energy, shelter, clothing – and best delivered locally; and what happens if society crumbles to the point that the internet or even electricity supply is not guaranteed?
However, I’ve been working with a group of people for a couple of years now, who are trying to plant the seeds of a new kind of money / exchange system, that involves no interest, doesn’t require banks, and uses an exchange medium that’s impossible to extract from communities and dump in the Cayman Islands. It’s an old idea called mutual credit, that can be controlled from communities, and linked to form a global network now that we have the internet (although everything starts to fall over, it can be continued, at least locally, with a notebook and pen). I’d like to talk with SF more about it.
There’s cause to be optimistic, Simon – you say that we can only fight a rearguard action, but never win, because ‘if we ever accede to power, power corrupts’. Yes, so let’s not accede to power. Let’s disperse it – decentralise and mutualise. Although you’ve spent most of your life ‘pissing against the winds of capitalism’, we don’t have to persuade the majority to do anything ‘worthy’ – in fact that’s impossible, and always has been. I’ve talked with people in co-ops who have actually hidden the fact that they’re a co-op for this very reason (ordinary people are often afraid that co-ops will be expensive and unreliable). But I do think that just a small percentage of us building tools that make life easier for people, and especially working-class people, can bring the majority over to our side – changing the course of history by stealth, in other words.
So: buy this book, subscribe to the Land, and if you live in South Dorset, buy his milk.
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1Juley Howard March 9th, 2022