This is in response to the thread on IrishRepublican.Net:
I’ve worked on farms, in factory and office too; I’d like to caution against emotional reductionism to an urban/rural rivalry. Not only is this completely unproductive both politically and intellectually, it’s actually kind of parochial.
I’ve heard lots of criticisms about farmers before, some valid. The wrong-headed ones are overwhelmingly from people who have no actual firsthand knowledge of farming – I am not saying that should prevent people from having an opinion, but I don’t think many of the invalid prejudices would be considered as broadly acceptable if concerning an ethnic minority, for example.
The average income of a farmer from agriculture is about 20,000 yearly; the average income of an employee of the department of agriculture is about 50,000. A farmer does not get a state-guaranteed pension, travel and mileage allowance, his livelihood is not protected by labour tribunal, or by security of civil-service salary and benefits etc. etc.
I’m highly ambivalent about the repeated use of “urban worker” in contrast to farmers. Not only is this being used euphemistically to conflate and ideologically place urban dwellers on a plane above criticism, but also to imply a kind of four-legs-good, two-legs-bad opposition against farmers – not “urban workers”, and by sly implication, not workers?
Ah, but they own land. And if they sold the land… they wouldn’t be able to be farmers anymore, would they? But someone – some urban dweller, let’s say – might build a house, or a whole development of houses. So let’s turn this around… I could also argue that all those “urban workers” – for the sake of consistency, I’ll also use that as a euphemism for all urban dwellers – who have been living large during the Celtic Tiger years, on the Pig’s Back of mortgaged equity, have been relentlessly driving up land prices. This creates a huge incentive for farmers to sell land to developers, at these inflated prices (most farmers promptly turn around and by land somewhere else – it’s just what they know). It also makes it impossible for young farmers to enter farming unless they inherit land – there is no way you can justify that kind of expense for the paltry returns from a field of wheat.
But what is the purpose of creating urban/rural rivalries like that? Does it benefit our understanding, or cloud it? Who benefits from that distraction, other than those elements and institutions who have actually gained the most, and who are now getting bailed out by the taxpayer?
My own back-of-the-envelope calculations are that about 50-60% of the so-called “farmers'” subsidy goes to administration. That would mean those “urban workers” in suits and offices, and all those urban-based inspectors whose numbers have not been decreasing, even as farmers’ numbers have. For every 360 citizens, there is one Garda; for every 14 farmers, there is one Department of Agriculture employee. Of the remainder of the budget, about 75-90% goes on inputs, the majority petrochemical based – e.g. pesticides, fertiliser and fuel. Those are not produced on farms, by the way. And that would be most of the 75-90% of that two-thirds of that so-called “income” mentioned by others; the farmer is a middle man who just takes a cut, before passing the majority on to more urban-workers (have I beaten this horse enough?) in suits and offices.
Picture a loaf of bread. About half a slice of that, that’s about what the farmer gets as a return from that loaf. Who is getting the lion’s share? You might start by asking those fellows who are charging you 50% more in the 26 counties than your compatriots in the six-counties (and I doubt even farmers there get more of a share).
There was a good Pamphlet issued by one of the Wobblies, I think, called “Socialism for the Farmer who Farms the Farm” (as opposed to the “farmer who farms farmers” i.e. the large land-holders). They use the metaphor of “the fat man on the bridge” who collects a toll from everyone who wants to go to the market to sell their products. The toll-taker represents the capitalist problem (not the market per se). The fat man on the bridge is no longer one class or set of people, but the institutional, structural alienation of the product of labour from all workers – rural and urban – by the privatisers (or privateers) and state-sanctioned capitalists.
I disagree that small-scale enterprises are inherently inefficient as opposed to large scale. The question of scale is one of appropriateness and is relative to context. A lot of corporate gigantism is not the result of “free markets”, but rather of state intervention on behalf of corporate and managerial interests. The huge physical distribution costs are effectively subsidised by public road-building and geopolitical pacification (military, political and economic suppression – or transfer – of restless natives: e.g. NATO strongarm, EU Big Mother, IMF economic hitmen…). There is a huge cartelisation impetus, and artificially-high market entrance barrier because of high regulation – the compliance-cost of which can cripple small- to medium-sized enterprises, but which can be absorbed as a constant running cost by large-scale business, now protected from more innovative up-starts.
This applies not just to shops and workshops, but to farming and farmers’ markets (or local shops and restaurants that try to favour local produce). There is a very large compliance cost in agricultural production in Ireland, both in time and resources necessary.
This all suits both big-business and big-state managerialism (many of the top people rotate between them both). It regularises tax-intakes (e.g. the unholy alliance of petrol-companies and Revenue/Dept. of Finance in crimping alternative energy), and provides secure, stable profit streams (less competition).
The mutualist writer, Kevin Carson, has some excellent analysis of this at mutualist.org – check out particularly his “Studies in Mutualist Political Economy“, also “Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective“.
By the way, when people say “part-time” farmer, it sometimes sounds more like a sneer. I’m not sure why Mexican campesinos should be less deserving of respect, if they work at other jobs for income, for example. This is a long established phenomenon in sociological and economic studies of many rural societies around the world, there’s nothing aberrant about it (the correct term is “pluriactive” FYI).
Another thing: the people who make the regulations and implement the regulations, and the people who buy the agricultural commodities and consume the products, are primarily urban dwellers, not farmers. Look at how much you are all paying for a bottle of water. Water. In Ireland. Now, on a volume/price basis, compare that with what you are all willing to pay (I should say, “not” willing to pay) for an all-natural energy and health drink with water, protein, calcium… or: “Milk”. You, urban dwellers, are supporting this – not farmers.
I realise that the Irish Farmers’ Association makes a big noise. But the Civil Servants regard this as a game. They know that the IFA leaders may need to make a big song and dance, but that eventually they will be made go away by some “cash in the fist” – they get something shiny to take back to the members as a big victory, but that the system will go on fundamentally the same. IFA leadership is a revolving door for managerial positions in government, a training ground for boyo’s who have proven their mettle, that can be useful assets to a smart government. (the “Phoenix” touches on this, this week actually.) And the farmers are mesmerised into thinking their fella knows all the big boyos and will sort it out. The IFA are tactically brilliant, but strategically nowhere – except as a future governmental asset testbed.
The farmers – a greying population – are being given subsidies as a kind of morphine drip, in preparation for wholesale euthanasia of the industry. Like cattle being lined up for culling. I want to emphasise, that I do not believe they get the vast majority of the subsidy – but they are mesmerised by the little piece of paper telling them how many numbers are supposedly going into their bank account. The most ingenious con-system is one in which the marks are actually committed to it, because they believe they are the chief beneficiaries.
I remember a Dept. official once snidely remarking to someone who asked what he would do when every farmer had been driven out of business: “Don’t worry, I’ll be the last one to lose my job.” They will be happy when there is one big farm, and one big shop to sell it in: they’ll have the same number of people to regulate it, a nice tidy revenue stream – and whether the system calls itself “socialist” or “capitalist”, you can be sure the same people will be rotating through that managerialist revolving door.
Want some quick fixes that could actually work?
1) a) Abolish the Department of Agriculture, and most of the agricultural regulations. Outsource all clerical functions to India;
b) Send an annual cheque for 5-15% of the previous agricultural budget directly to the farmers (remember, this is effectively all that they are getting after everyone else takes their cut anyway, we’re just cutting out the middlemen);
c) You can now either not charge the tax, or refund every resident in the form of food coupons. Or, you could give the 5-15% actual farmer subsidy to actual consumers as food coupons, to be actually spent on actual farm produce.
Congratulations! you have now just slashed the Agricultural budget by 85-95%, and made the effective subsidy go where it was supposed to without the farmers (or urban workers) being worse off;
3) Zone land according to use and/or underlying value category. Urban land is charged a fee in order to reclaim “socially added” value (public infrastructure, demographic density etc.) for public benefit, and is subdivided on that basis (e.g. residential, industrial, commercial, shopping centre, central business district versus periphery etc.). Rural land is also so divided, with “Agricultural” among the lowest – with “Ecological reserve” or “forestry” being perhaps zero charge, or as credit against others to give an incentive to preserve wildlife and habitat etc.
There has been talk of nationalisation and ownership. Remember first that Proudhon is often misquoted as saying “Property is theft”; that’s a misquote, because while he said that, he _also_ said that “Property is freedom” – he was listing the ways that the institution of property could be used to protect the worker (the worker owned his own means of production) as opposed to when the institution was used to alienate the worker’s labour.
“Property” in land is not one category, but a bundle of rights and entitlements. It’s quite possible to own the right of one use, but not another (e.g. right-of-ways, cropping), or to own the right to use, but not the underlying value (e.g. one person is allowed farm it, but in case of sale the money is split). It’s quite possible to “nationalise” the “socially added” value of land, while leaving present owners with the right to use it and transfer it. I say “socially added” because the value of improvements to the land (whether through fertility or a building) ought in justice go to the people making those improvements. “Socially Added” value is not due to specific individuals, e.g. publicly funded infrastructure, density of population/labour. This also has the effect of increasing the efficiency of land/site use, since there is a charge for use regardless. The previous comment about land being similar to Gold is very apt: no one’s making more of either, and land or sites are a limiting factor to all production.
There’s lots of ways to skin a cat. Instead of charging home-buyers (or farm-buyers?) a big lump-sum stamp-duty, annualise the capitalisation-cost of the site value (thus also providing a steady stream through good times and bad, and not penalising personal improvements to the house etc.). All of those properties in hock to the bankrupt banks: peel them out and nationalise them – the underlying site values remaining a national reserve, to be paid a regular lease in lieu of tax. All such charges would not necessarily increasing taxes on people, but could allow them to shift their tax burden. I don’t advocate charging away all value: efficient allocation of resources would require an incentive to do so – a bonus or commission kept.
Another big plus to this kind of system: no benefit for tax-exiles, you can’t take land and sites with you. And because sites are necessary for all production, site-value charges are famously “sticky” – they cannot be passed on to consumers, the front-loaded onus is on the site owner to actively pull in revenue instead of squatting there and waiting for people to bribe him for use rights. It also has the benefit of reducing speculative excess – a burden on the entire economy and new house buyers – since possession of land or sites would bear a cost.
I’m borrowing and adapting ideas here from both the American economist Henry George, and the Irish economist Raymond Crotty (but don’t blame them for anything that ticks you off – that’s probably me).
One other thing: I realise that I’m being cheeky calling for the abolition of the Dept. of Agriculture, but examine your response – are you really anti-subsidy, or just anti-farmer? Is it ok to outsource farming, but not office work? How does a farmer compete with state-capitalist corporations that pay third-world workers 30 cents an… hour? A day? Farmers might be more “efficient” if we could pay our accountants that kind of money! Is healthy, inexpensive food-commodities just another consumer item, or a matter of national interest? Do you all want the best – or at least most regulated – food that money can buy, but expect farmers to do it as a charity?