24 February 2012

Critical(?) Subjectivities: The Greenhorns Part 1

I want to add a different, if perhaps less rigorous (in so far as it takes up the ephemeral), perspective to the conversation. It seems that one issue that has been recurrent through our conversation is current forms of subjectivity and whether they are or not adequate to an overcoming of capitalism, or to a new, more humane regime of accumulation that could better cultivate the conditions for a positive social (as opposed to dystopian asocial) overcoming. But we’ve been debating this issue without much attention to specific current expressions of subjectivity. To begin to fill this lacuna I offer below a close reading of one social movement. I offer my reading less as a definitive statement than as a critically attuned ethnography. It should also be noted that I did absolutely no traditional “reporting.” All the analysis is derived from promotional materials available on the web. Why talk to someone when you can assume they mean what they say?

The object of study is a group I mentioned in a December comment, the Greenhorns, a young farmers’ activist organization. These are not your mom and dad’s farmers. Emerging out of the Berkeley local food movement and now based in the Hudson Valley (elite locales within the foodie world), these are progressive neophytes plugged into social media, producing something that is as much a cultural project as an agricultural one. They eschew hierarchy in a fashion similar to that of the Occupy Movement, and also like Occupy seek to spread in the imitative fashion of a “meme.” Part information-provider, coalition-builder, and social event-organizer, the Greenhorns clearly express the lifestyle politics we’ve come to expect from neoliberalism. The question is, are they, could they be, something more? For while the triumph of lifestyle politics such as this, which advocates non-industrial agriculture, employment, and food for all could very well lead to more a more humane regime of accumulation, it is less clear, but still worth wondering, if it could also point beyond it.

Let’s take a look at a New Year’s communication:

Good morning Greenhorns.
What a gentle start to winter. After that one big snow, its been just fine and sunny. Much nicer than last year.
Good weather for making lists, actually. What will we need to succeed?
We will need to work as a team. 

We will need know our history.

We will need to occupy public offices, and lobby effectively. 

We will need small-scale manufacturing + technology that serves our farming practices.

We need to keep innovating, particularly when it comes to accessing capital and land.

We need to stay joyful and not get sour when the weather is crazy.

We need to gossip with each-other to discern trends, mimic good models, avoid risky ones.

We need more national and regional leadership.

We need to be serious about the health of our bodies and the solvency of our enterprises.

We need to judiciously use government-subsidized credit from the FSA or Farm Credit. 

We need to negociate (sic) with the suburban and gentrified urban edge around our cities, to find peace and respectful engagement, same goes with non-farming landowners and slow-money philanthropists.

We need to form coalitions, coops, associations, and partnerships. 

We need to inspire+ challenge! the USDA agencies ( especially NRCS) to understand and serve us.

We will need to feed more people on less land in more biologically intensive and labor intensive ways.

We need to win the hearts, the kids, and the loyal pocketbooks of consumers.

We need to redeem foodstamps for those who cannot afford our produce. 

We need babysitters and accountants, graphic designers and high speed internet.

We need to figure out the student debt situation. Farming isn't a good way to service debt.

Quite the laundry list. Let’s see if we can’t break this down a bit.

On the one hand, it’s glaringly obvious that a form of collective identity is being expressed. Part of this would seem to be from necessity. The group, through its publication and educational offerings, makes it clear that many Greenhorns are precisely that. For first generation farmers who likely have spent more time with Great Books than seed catalogs, community is an important means to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to pursue their individual farming enterprise. But, they also express a more abstract imperative to collective identity (“We must know our history”), that like previous calls to collective identity (e.g. nationalism) calls upon historical time to substantiate and sustain its existence. As recently noted, this particular configuration of collective identity has been part and parcel of modern capitalism even as it has worked against its social and political inequalities.

The other aspect worth mentioning about the collective identity being asserted here is that it seems to firmly eschew electoral politics of one-man-one-vote as an adequate democratic practice. Politically, they want to “work as a team,” and develop leadership for that team, join that team with similar teams. In short, they tend towards the creation of a social movement. But what would be the nature of that movement? Certainly we could cynically assume that the collective is being mobilized in the name of individual interest. After all, such is the case with our friends with an affinity for a certain crop originally grown in China. And we could cite as evidence of self-interest the federal subsidies, regulatory changes, and student loan forgiveness that appear on this New Year’s wish list. But let us hold the cynicism at bay.

On one hand, it seems the Greenhorns would be a movement firmly embedded in neoliberal capitalist agricultural production. It needs capital, land, and technology. It needs the assistance of the US government through credit and the favor of regulatory agencies. Furthermore, it recognizes that the ultimate arbiter of the game is the US consumer, whom it must win over. It is trying to play by the rules of the game so as to expand a humanitarian agricultural agenda that would create jobs, feed our bodies more nutritious foods, and save the soil from chemical ravages. But there are also elements here that do not clearly articulate with the abstract language of the neoliberal market. Though the Greenhorns are clearly interested in developing what in another lexicon might be called “best practices,” its invocation of “gossip” as a source for such things references not the realm of rationalized production but the world of direct social relations. That is, knowledge and skills are mediated by personal relationships, rather than being the exclusive property of capital.

In another example of what one might identify as the group’s structural ambivalence, at a deeper level, its conflation of bodily health and solvent enterprises expresses business as an extension of the self, compatible with the sense that under capital we sell our labor to reproduce ourselves. (The solvent enterprise is the healthy body.) But in the terms of the conflation, the Greenhorns seem to point in a different direction. Solvency, of course, refers to the ability of a business to reproduce itself. Notably, solvency is not identical with profitability. So one begins to sense that perhaps this is a movement that eschews the capitalist modus operandi. Such a sense could be supported by their assertion that we need more labor and their invocation of the species capacity of man to innovate so as to do more with less. Surely these are anti-capitalist positions in so far as capitalists want profits at the expense of labor and capitalist enterprise has ravenously consumed the earth’s resources. But, while in an age of ever decreasing employment one wants to applaud the desire to put more people to work, the potential of man’s species capacity was, for Marx, precisely the elimination of labor. In this sense the movement is regressive.

It is also worth puzzling over a bit the self-referential moments of the piece: not only do they need capital, but babysitters and student-debt forgiveness. The weather has been mild (where they are). The list itself is created in a moment of self examination that warns against bad moods. To be honest, I am not quite sure of what to make of this in-group rhetoric. On one hand, it serves to reinforce the sense of the collective, but in a much more concrete way than appeals to abstract “history.” But that very concreteness offers only fragmentation as the basis for politics.

So where does this leave us: a regressive movement that is nonetheless humane (sustainable agriculture, employment, accepting food stamps), and keenly aware of its distinct social identifiers.

But this is not where the assessment ends. The Greenhorns are organizing. So stay tuned . . .

But before we move on it is worth considering how this group articulates with the larger social context of which they are part. In important ways, they articulate a moment of crisis. Implicit in the wish-list is a recognition of current contradictions: Industrial agriculture has given rise to an unhealthy food culture (for both bodies and land). But the local, sustainable, small-scale farming that could solve this dilemma produces food that consumers cannot (or may choose not) to afford. A solution to our problems of body and land cannot be easily pursued under current conditions of credit, technology, and politics.

 More importantly perhaps, the group articulates a crucial misapprehension of the fundamental dynamic (read: problem) of capitalism that nonetheless poses an interesting possibility for its overcoming. They call for more labor. Yet, the shearing pressure of capitalist production constantly pushes for a reduction in necessary labor time. As socially necessary labor time is the metabolic regulator of society, their program is starkly radical in so far as it would seem to want to swim against the tide of capital’s changing organic composition (that is, the diminishing amount of labor time employed relative to constant capital, eg. machinery, technology, etc.) Eschewing profit, it might seem possible to these small farmers that they can escape this shearing pressure. (If all they want to do is continually reproduce the capital initially invested, achieving surplus value is not necessary, so the downward pressure on necessary labor time can be ignored). Except that the shearing pressure operates at the level of value, and as participants in capitalism they still are producing value, even if not surplus value. Because the value of a given commodity will be determined at a socially general level, if it pushes labor time lower than the current level, value (which is a measure of labor time) will change everywhere, and thus even the young farmers will have to adjust labor time lower. (I realize here, that I am, following the conjured considerations of these young farmers, conflating value, a category of production, with profit, a category of the market. Really, this is just a gloss.) But despite being caught in capital’s dynamic, the Greenhorns do raise an interesting question: If the goal is to employ labor, does labor time matter? Feasibility aside, does pointing towards the reassertion of use-value production unmediated by value production offer a standpoint of overcoming?

The Greenhorns also raise the interesting question of what does labor-intensive technology look like? On one hand, to achieve their social vision they need to (collectively) produce on a scale equivalent to industrial agriculture, but they cannot use the current (labor-reducing) technology of agricultural production to do this. Are we going back to China of the eighteenth century? Is this more humane? Though what the labor itself might look like is far from clear, in so far as it provides jobs for those who must sell their labor to live, it might very well be. Does it point beyond capitalism? That depends. If I can tend to a garden in the morning, write a poem in the afternoon, and still go to bed with a full belly at night, it might. But whether this is what the Greenhorns are pointing towards requires further consideration.

Stay tuned!


  1. Very interesting post. I think this kind of close ethnography of subjectivities is exactly what we need to be doing to make this conversation more concrete.

    I think the two modes you outline of the Greenhorns are true, the attempt to coalesce collectivity and the resistance to the hegemonic relation to labor. Drawing out those ambivalences I think does a lot to push against what I think is a overly simplistic writing off of neoliberal subjectivity, just because Reagan wanted us all to be individualists.

    I'm curious what you about how these tendencies might be peculiar to farm labor. As in, is there something peculiar about farming, something that's tied up with lots of romantic notions of pre-capitalist forms of production, that makes this kind of thinking appealing.

    I think you see this kind of rhetoric a lot with the revival of crafts etc. (living in Portland now I see it a lot), and the notion that there's something political about pursuing "labors of love" and that those labors should be extended or even made more "intensive."

  2. I agree with Earl - if what we're trying to do here is going to be successful, it requires much more of this kind of work. Only these detailed examinations of everyday ideologies and aesthetics can really put to the test the more abstract claims and fill in the details that could make the broader theory compelling. It's also vital if we're going to locate some foundation for the kind of politics that this moment demands.

    A lot of the implications you've drawn out from the Greenhorns could stand in for all kinds of craft production that came to prominence, at least as an aspiration, towards the end of the bubble economy. There's this naive romanticism that we can overcome all the problems associated with neoliberalism - the impersonality, the homogenization of consumption, the greed, the elevation of quantity over quality, the environmental destruction - simply by bringing ourselves into direct relation with the production process (as both producers and consumers). It's naive economically because if everyone did that, productivity would suffer a catastrophic decline. It's naive politically because individual lifestyle choices can have no broad impact. And it's naive theoretically, because as long as capitalism persists the concrete dimension of production and consumption that is being valorized can never be separated from the abstract dimension that generates these problems.

  3. But rather than just dismissing this approach, it's also worth asking where it could lead. I'm not sure this romanticism is regressive so much as it's premature. In a socialist society, it seems plausible that this kind of craft production would be quite common - if the need to labor for wages was abolished and people could pursue whatever they took an interest in, a lot of people would probably spend at least part of their time on high-quality crafts. The question is whether people attracted to this kind of thing, as they run up against its limits, will simply give up or instead turn to politics.

    Yet there's also a very disturbing side to this sort of thing, because it reflects an increasingly common experience of identity being wound up in one's labor. The line between working hours and leisure hours is steadily breaking down, and I'm seeing very little resistance to that. Quite the opposite, more and more people are arguing that the wave of the future is constituting yourself as a "brand" and entering intense market competition simply to find a job, which could then be lost at any moment. That horribly repugnant line of thinking isn't the same as craft romanticism, but craft romanticism could be deployed as fig leaf for this sort of underlying transformation of work.