Land Is How You Live


(This essay also appears at ABEAUTIFULRESISTANCE.ORG)

Today’s the first day of the new moon. Which means something, at least in my garden.

I mentioned in my last essay that I’ve been composting, and teased at the end that I’d eventually share more information on how I do that, particularly with the moons. That’s not this essay (but I promise it’s coming). Suffice for now to know that the new moon is the time I harvest my finished compost and begin a new pile.

While shoveling out last moon’s compost and mixing this moon’s, I found myself thinking about a rather obnoxious moment on social media last year. Yeah–I hope this sounds as absurd to you as it does to me after writing this.

In my defense, composting has additional psychological and spiritual aspects that I’m not sure I can easily explain. Animism and Marxism both insist that the material realm is complete, rather than fractured into body vs. spirit dichotomies; as such, actions in the physical realm affect all other realms because they’re already one and the same.

But let me try to explain this a different way. Composting takes what is old and no longer needed in its current form and transmutes it into something more readily usable, yeah? Nothing’s destroyed, just dismantled into constituent parts which then reform into new beings. So engaging this process fully, devoting oneself to composting as it were, helps create new compost piles for ideas, emotions, memories, and other things you no longer need or want in their current form.

Thus when I spend several hours working on the compost, I find all this old mental shit seems to also get mixed into the piles. Call it “therapy” if you want, or dealing with “trauma,” or whatever. But it works.

Anyway, that stupid social media incident I mentioned. Last year, there was some obnoxious conflagration on twitter about how I’m a crypto-fascist and likely a white supremacist because of my suspicious focus on “land.”

It started from the sort of person you’d expect, a highly-urbanized post-modern millennial sort whose exposure to leftist theory came primarily through social media posts written by other people whose primary exposure also came through social media.

Regardless, it became quite a fuss. There were a few weeks where I stopped looking at my computer completely so I’d be spared another “Rhyd is crypto-fash trash” tirade from random strangers.

Of course, I initially tried to clear up what I assumed must be misunderstandings. I’m perpetually an idiot this way, too often willing to assume good faith. When I was 6 I got a bike for my birthday; a few weeks later some neighbor kids convinced me it looked just like their brother’s and “can we just take it so we can show him? We’ll be right back.”

They didn’t come back, of course. And yet part of me presumes they really mistook my bike for their brothers, just like I also presume that someone who thinks I’m secretly a fascist is likewise making an honest mistake.

(Intellectually I know better, but whatever.)

What had me thinking about this incident while compiling this moon’s compost pile was specifically the question of land. I don’t have much (and it’s rented anyway), but from the small portion of it I’ve dedicated to gardening I’m able to grow quite a bit. If I tore up the rest of the yard (something my landlord wouldn’t like) and took seriously to canning and preserving, I’d probably be able to grow about a quarter of the food I’d eat next year.

But of course, that’s only a quarter.

A few years ago, I stayed on a much larger permaculture set-up in Germany, just on the border with Poland. The place was once a communal bakery and a public house on six acres in a tiny East German village. He’d bought it for very cheap (80,000 Euro) and moved from Berlin to start gardening.

Besides occasional visitors and two permaculture students he hired part-time to help, he worked the land himself. In his fourth year, he was able to eat (very well, at that) from everything he raised from the land except for sugar, coffee, and meat. His situation isn’t unusual among other folks doing the same thing.

While modern industrial agriculture subdivides large amounts of land for monocropping (planting one crop at a time), permaculture is much closer to pre-industrial agriculture. In industrial agriculture, you can travel miles in any direction and only see one type of food growing (often corn or wheat), while in permaculture and the pre-capitalist forms, the vast majority of the food you’ll eat is grown within walking distance.

I could write a long essay on this subject alone (and maybe will one day), but one of the core differences worth noting for now is that industrial agriculture requires intense levels of energy for food transport. Though it appears “efficient” to raise all your wheat in one place and tomatoes in another, you have to transport the wheat to all the places that don’t grow wheat (because they’re growing tomatoes, for instance) and all your tomatoes to places that don’t grow tomatoes. That is, petroleum is needed in all directions just to distribute food (not to mention petroleum used to transport the food to processing and packaging factories and then to stores). Pre-capitalist and permacultural set-ups don’t require this for the vast majority of what people eat (though for certain rare regional foods, like the aforementioned coffee and sugar, this is still required).

In the above paragraph I mentioned the transport of food to places not growing it. There’s one kind of place that is crucial here: cities. Cities don’t grow food, they consume it. While I might have a small and very “productive” garden in my own urban backyard, the vast majority of the people who live in this city don’t have this (nor do most of them even have backyards at all). In much larger cities this is much more of a problem.

Cities cannot sustain themselves and must rely on agriculture outside the city to provide their food. While there are occasionally utopian theories which suggest this might one day be possible (for instance, the “municipalism” of Murray Bookchin and the various “solarpunk” fantasists), no such city yet exists. Instead, every city in the world must extract the agricultural production from people outside the city in the same way Rome or any other empire extracted labor from peasant-producers outside the capitols.

It’s thus not really a far stretch to say that cities are little empires, then, exploiting the land and the people who work that land in order to sustain themselves. And though this has always been the case, capitalism greatly exacerbated this problem (and led to the explosive populations of the cities) by formalizing this exploitation and turning the Commons (land that peasants used to support themselves) into private property.

Here, we’ve threaded our way from my compost heap to Marxist theory, all thanks to the certainty of some urban twitter-ites that a focus on land is a sign that someone is secretly fascist. However (and perhaps I am being too kind here, as I was with those kids who stole my bike), an urban American who doesn’t understand how they get their food could be almost forgiven for mis-identifying land as a far-right concern.

Because with very little exception, no liberal or leftist platform within the United States actually discusses land at all. On the rare occasions they do, it is often in regards to indigenous rights to land, but without much thought to what they (or really anyone) actually might want land for in the first place. Besides, it’s been so long that only the conservative and farther-right political movements give any attention to land access (and then only regarding property rights and farm subsidies) that anyone who’s given little thought to the matter might presume that the Right is a rural tendency and leftism is only urban.

Step outside the US for a moment (something I know is really hard to do as an American) and the situation is completely different. Leftist movements constantly fight for land access, especially for poor and displaced farmers in the Global South (India, Brazil, and Nigeria are all well-known cases). The struggle for their rights isn’t aimed towards making them industrial farmers, either; rather, almost everywhere outside the exceptionalist American “left” understands that land is how you live. That is, the poor are fighting for the ability to raise their own food and trade or sell their surplus, not to raze the land to become industrial food producers on the world market.

Why the left in the US doesn’t fight for the same thing is a complicated question, but I think much of it really comes down to an acceptance by the left that growing ones own food is a “primitive” or regressive activity, one we moderns have transcended (along with community and all those other backwards things that humans who have the Netflix and Uber no longer need).

Of course there are outliers. I know quite a few trans farmers, and Black farmers, and disabled farmers, and lots of other people the urban left claims as their unique provenance. Many of them have formed collectives, some exclusively around their shared oppression identities, a thing that seems much more useful than tweeting about identity politics.

Here in France there have been several very large autonomous leftist movements attempting to reclaim land, each severely oppressed by tear gas and tanks. In the US, only indigenous resistance meets this reaction from the government, but again we must unfortunately remember that urban leftists who support those movements aren’t fighting for the ability of everyone to survive off of land, just someone else.

To bring it back to Marxism again, or more broadly towards the most crucial question everyone–left or right–should be asking themselves as climate change wreaks havoc upon industrial capitalist food production: how the fuck are we all going to eat? Any resistance to capitalism needs to answer this question, but the majority of leftist responses of late either completely ignore the question or posit a magical transition to luxurious automation in which robots pick and process our food in high-rise vertical greenhouses and machines stir vats of genetically-engineered “meatless meat.”

The only answer to this question is land. Land is how you live, land is how you eat. It’s how we live and eat now, even if we’re purchasing food created by the exploited labor of farmers elsewhere and resold on shelves under florescent lighting. To imagine otherwise is to deny the very material basis of our existence, a denial only possible through capitalist alienation and the insulation of urban people (rich or poor) from the earth, what grows there, and who grows it.

What it would take for a leftist movement in the United States to focus again on land is something I don’t even know how to imagine. Already I see the upturned noses of the urban hipster “left” at the very idea that they might need to get off their smartphones and get their hands dirty or even worse: have to physically talk to others doing the same thing. But I know there are exceptions to this; in fact, so many of the permaculturalists I met when I was younger were queer and leftist that I was shocked when I met my first right-leaning one. But they’re not enough to create the foundation of a leftist movement, and anyway most of them were too busy with their land to do organizing.

Perhaps only necessity will trigger such a shift. When food prices skyrocket because of drought, flooding, disease, or other predicted climate change related crises and the urban poor suddenly can’t eat, the left may finally find itself forced to look at land and food from a less ideological and more material viewpoint. By then it might be too late for many of the poor (of all identities) the left claims to defend, and the left will likely be in more direct competition with the far-right for those who remain, but maybe they’ll figure it out regardless.

Until then, I’ll keep composting fallen leaves, food scraps, cut grass, wood chips, and baseless criticisms into something that can better grow my own life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s