Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Weekly Review - Rural Economy: A Reply

by Reginald Jebb

In our issue of November 25th Mr. M. D. Shaw contributed an article entitled "Farming Through Colonial Eyes," in which he expressed grave doubts of the possibility of our basing our post-war economy on a wide distribution of land ownership. Evidently he would welcome such a change, but considers it utopian and thinks that “protagonists of the back to the land movement . . . should devote themselves to demonstrating the possible economic side of these problems now that the moral, philosophical and even religious aspects are beginning to be appreciated."

His main reasons for thinking that a rural economy (I use this term here to express a national economy of which parish communities, made up largely of small landowners and independent craftsmen, would form the basic element) is impracticable, are as follows: (1) He doubts if the small owners and independent would be able to obtain a decent living. (2) He thinks that farming and the production of food cannot be removed from the present day sphere of commercial interests. (3) England cannot produce enough food to supply the whole of her population; but on the other hand her increased production would make the Empire’s economy difficult owing to reduced food exports. (4) He finds it disheartening that the initiation of a rural economy would require a revolution far more drastic than anything dreamed of in the wildest visions of our progressives. And, finally (5), he thinks that it will not be financially possible for any family to take up farming successfully within our present commercial system, except after years of training, after renouncing amenities, and after a mental and moral readjustment of our accepted outlook.

I will take these objections in order, but before doing so I should like to make it clear that the rural economy that we advocate in these pages is not proposed as a subsidiary element in what Mr. Shaw calls “the present day sphere of commercial interests,” but as the new center of gravity of our economic system. In other words we aim at a revolution in our economy—a revolution which Mr. Shaw rightly considers to be impossible if the bulk of the nation reject it.

So now for his specific objections.

Will small owners be able to obtain a decent living? It may be taken as a rough estimate that about four-fifths of the food produced on a small family farm, cultivated so as to obtain all the staple foods required by those working it, will be surplus to those requirements, that is to say, saleable. It is obviously not intended that every farm should produce all these staple foods, but in the rural economy advocated a parish or other manageable small unit of production should be able to make itself fairly self-sufficient in its food needs for farmers and their beasts. If this is so and if a fair price is guaranteed for all the surplus, there should be no question as to the "decent living" to be obtained by those working on the land.

Mr. Shaw’s second objection, that food production cannot be removed from the present commercial economy has yet to be tested. It is not an economic, but a psychological difficulty. Those who wish to introduce a rural economy believe that one or two practical examples of its functioning would prove immensely attractive to millions who are—perhaps half unconsciously—hostile to a wage system that deprives them of full liberty, makes their security depend upon another’s will, and is more and more restricting their creative faculties.

The objection that England cannot produce enough food for the whole of her population has been answered by Colonel Pollitt in his “Britain Can Feed Herself” (Macmillan, 3/6); but that is beside the point. A rural economy does not postulate complete self-sufficiency, nor does it contemplate an end of industrial activity or of exports and imports. It desires a much greater degree of small ownership in concerns of national and international activity, but is prepared to admit State or Regional management in certain undertakings which, of their nature must be on a big scale. Mr. Shaw’s argument that the Empire will be the loser owing to his country’s greater self-sufficiency in food opens up many considerations too long to follow out here, but he will admit that mono-culture for mass export has already devasted large areas of the Empire, and, if what is left of the fertility of its soil is to be preserved, at system of small scale mixed farming will be necessary there also.

It is strange that a policy of basic self-sufficiency in food should be thought a selfish one. It is, on the contrary, an elementary, economic precaution comparable to other national services such as the police or the water supply (we do not rely upon Canada to provide us with water); nor does it by any means kill trade, for trade, properly understood, is an exchange of surpluses.

As regards Mr. Shaw’s disheartenment at the thought of a revolution. Is he so satisfied with our present social and economic situation that he fears to alter it? I think not. What he means is that it is a difficult business to change people’s habits. But if the change will offer opportunities for more robust health, for greater liberty, and for enjoying work instead of looking on it as a necessary evil, then surely disheartenment is out of place.

Now, when so many changes are in the air, and when so much of our economy is being called in question, now there is an unusual opportunity for making these changes which will deliver us from the servitude and famine that industrialism, whether capitalist or socialist, is bringing nearer every day.

Lastly, the difficulties of the change over from one economy to another—the training necessary, the renouncement of certain capitalist amenities and so on. Time will certainly be necessary: the process will have to be a gradual one, but it is unreasonable to suppose that land work and country crafts are beyond the reach of the coming generation, provided that co-operation and interrelation between all the activities of a country and village economy are built up. The outline has been traced by men like Lord Portsmouth, Mr. Massingham, and Lord Northbourne. It is not beyond our power to fill in the outline and make the picture a reality.

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