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Earning A Crust: Food, efficiency and the separation of work from life

Governments promote economic efficiency. Efficiency is achieved by reducing costs, the chief of which is salaries and pensions, so we attempt to reduce the number of people we employ. But whether the nation is served well solely by efficiency of labour, with the resulting concentration of economic power, is an interesting question. The concentration of power is precisely the effect of every government intervention in industry. Reducing costs tends to mean externalising them, so that they are not borne by that industry itself, but by someone else, such as the nation as a whole at some later time. It may that alongside efficiency, a nation also needs a certain level of economic resilience for too much efficiency may leave us exposed as global economic conditions change. Take farming. Farming is the most fundamental industry of all. It produces food. You are the one who wants to eat three times day after all. In the good old days when we said Grace before meals we made our daily acknowledgement of those wh o work in this industry. That is when it was socially acceptable to acknowledge that others work for us, and we may express gratitude in public to them for their work. After decades of improving efficiency we have stopped thanking anyone. Now food appears before us by magic. There are two trends at work in the British agriculture. One is that the government continues promotes the centralisation of agriculture that began in the Second World War, adopted as the country struggled to feed itself. The aim then was simply to maximise the amount of food produced. Raising production has been the aim of government policy ever since, so our agricultural economy is in this respect is still on war-footing. The other aim is to do so efficiently, by which is meant, wi th an efficiency of labour, by reducing the number of people employed to produce that food. We do this by importing our food from which ever part of the world can produce it most cheaply. Cheap food sourced from all points of the world makes British farming appear less competitive. After all farmers are also responsible for the way the countryside looks.. In response to this, we have put all farmers on subsidies, which for reasons of national embarrassment we attribute to the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). You will have noticed right away that these two policies are contradictory. We make agriculture more labour efficient by reducing the number of people employed in it. But there are unintended consequences to labour efficiency. Each form of wo rk and industry creates its own culture and a population familiar with it. Reduce the number of people employed in an industry and you reduce our familiarity with that industry and its products. The nation becomes a ignorant of its own agriculture and rura l landuse, and so a stranger to the stuff it puts in its own stomach. We have no sense of involvement or achievement in this food. The nation that is disconnected from its own food and that agriculture that produces it, cannot relate the food that its eat s, and the health of their own bodies and wider sense of well -being. These two apparently opposite trends have made the British estranged from the food that they eat and the land they live in.

And yet some small, mixed and labour -intensive agriculture might be a good thing. Agriculture does not have to take place solely on an industrial scale. To allow a more mixed economy between the large and the small scale though would mean softening the policy of labour efficiency which has created large agricultur e and a large role for government in agriculture. The initial outlay for anybody entering agriculture at however small a scale is massive. The most valuable thing is the house and outbuildings with land. This sort of agriculture requires that the farmer live on site. He or she doesn't have one single task to perform through one block of time, after which they can leave the site. He has many small tasks to perform. They have livestock that require feeding and perhaps also milking twice daily, and other fo rms of care on and off throughout the day and sometimes the night. The price of a house with land, which is the entry price for the smallholder, has been inflated out of reach of most by the rest of the housing market. That price is effectively the cost of buying planning consent and so of keeping the planning authorities at bay. No matter how old and derelict that bungalow may be, it represents the right to reside on this land, and outbuildings represent the right to house animals, store animal feed and pe rhaps even do some of the processing that adds value to your produce. You are paying this initial high cost just so that the planning authorities do not forbid the link between work on site and your 24 -hour a day presence on site on which this enterprise i s based. The result is that a very few hardy souls engaged in agriculture, needing to protect their farm from animal or human intruders, live in caravans and face constant interrogation and legal action from council planning departments. I know one small f armer who has lost a substantial part of his crop this year because he is unable to stay on site to keep down the predations of birds. But there is one major obstacle to this sort of small scale agriculture. This is the issue of how to afford the piece o f land on which there is both some kind of dwelling and some outbuildings. This combination has been all but driven out of existence by the British fixation with houses as financial speculation and of course by falling food prices. Over many years the policies of governments have brought about a separation of life and work, and so between housing and employment. Living takes place in the house you bought: a house is simply a residence and its garden. To work you have to leave the house and travel elsewher e. You will of course be using oil in order to travel between these two places, and an increasing proportion of that oil has to be imported, and paid for by selling things to oil -producing countries. This will continue for only as long as other countries value what we have to sell them more than they value their oil. If they ever decide that they need that oil themselves, and have none left over to export to us, every place in this country will suddenly find that it is a very long way from every other place. We will wonder then why we decided to place work and houses so far away from one. We may not find it so easy to bring productive work back to the places in which people live. A country that has no small scale agriculture has no buffer against those sudde n movement of oil and other inputs, that might knock farmers out and leave just when food imports become much more expensive for the country as a whole.

There is a complete gap between life and work. We live, together as families, and we work, as individuals, without the family. We have made it near impossible for a family to work to together. We have made it difficult for anyone to produce even a small proportion of their own requirements. We have made impossible any kind of self sustenance that might give each household a little buffer of economic independence. We have made the peasant life impossible. We have made it impossible to live any life but the middle -class life, working in offices or the working class life, working in distribution centres. Both these forms of existence rely on importing most of what this country needs and so rely on one most implausible thing, a steady oil price. When food is cheap and unemployment is high, it is not obvious that we need labour-efficient agriculture. What we need is labour-intensive agriculture. Labourintensive agriculture does mean that someone works such long and variable hours that they have to live and work in the same place. Then we would have to concede that those engaged in it will have to live and wo rk in the same place. Government polices the division between residing and working, dwelling and work place. The house that unites dwelling and work -place achieves a level of autonomy that means less opportunity for the supermarkets and other corporatio ns, and less role for government. Of course this is not because just the state is attempting to do too much, but because the British demand that it constantly step in. Every economic policy in Britain is about the housing market and so about credit. The ho use is the great British deity. It is my neighbours who ask the planning officers to decide whether I have permission to do things that might spoil the view from their window and threaten the value of their house. The planning system sees to it that a hous e cannot be a work place, and that a place of work cannot be lived in. The planning system protects this division by enforcing the regulations that has removed work from home. You cannot work where you live, so you cannot work together with your family. A family cannot be engaged in a common work. Different generations may not work together, so your children will not learn about work, what to do and how to do it, directly from you. So the smallholder has to haul himself over many obstacles, and so is boun d to be exhausted, not by the physical labour of farming but by the demand that they present themselves as unpaid off-site employees of the government, responsible to other employees of the government, of each other whom has their own reasons to demonstrate how indispensible their arbitration is. The smallholder is always up on charges of having breached regulations, most of which could only be relevant to much larger businesses. But perhaps most small business men think themselves as counter-cultural too. Since so much legislation is limits the amount of labouring that actually takes place, it looks as though the British just dont like labour and are determined to save one another from it. The result is that the British have a poor diet and an agriculture and food industry that are vulnerable to the movements of global markets over which the British government is powerless. Concentrating the regulative power of government to disconnect of life from work, particularly in the countryside, may not be the righ t policy. The obvious way to go for the smallholder is to aim for crops that will earn cash. Many present themselves as any other farmer, simply on a smaller scale. But every crop requires an outlay, and it is difficult to make this outlay without borro wing. But

this leaves them exposed to movement of stock prices. If you borrow, you give yourself little chance of surviving a sudden drop of price for your products. Falling food prices have made agriculture technology -dependent, more heavily capitalised so that that individual farmers are often precariously over -borrowed and one harvest away from losing the farm. Like any medium and large highly-capitalised farmer he may find within a single season that he cannot afford to buy the inputs (seed, fertiliser, irrigation) or the services of the agricultural contractors and so either cannot get a crop in the ground or he cannot harvest it and get to market. But if perhaps for reasons that have nothing to do with us, other countries cannot sell oil at the prices we have got used to, this long settlement, which is the policy of governments over many decades may come unhitched. But if you aim for survival, and try a number of products without high start -up costs, you may give yourself a better chance. For years livestock prices have been dropping. But as the pound weakens imports will become more expensive and our own produced lamb and beef seem likely to fetch better prices. The Chinese are eating the lamb that the UK used to import from NZ so our own lamb -producers are doing better than they have. But who knows? Perhaps it is better to aim for a range of low value products and survival rather than cash. If you produce your own you will not be quite so exposed to rising food prices, and may even benefit from them. You will be on the right side of the curve, as they say. Because of the centrality of credit to our economy, we de fine work by its relationship with money and debt. Work is only ever about doing A in order to gain the medium by which to obtain Z. We almost never manage any closer connection between our own output and our own requirements, between what we create and wh at we consume. Money must reign supreme. Wicked the man who attempts to provide anything for his family that has not been procured through the market by the earning and spending of money. If we managed to avoid earning and spending money how would be it be possible for governments to raise taxes? How would it be possible to create new jobs in government for those who believe that the rest of us need their supervision? This gap between living and houses on one hand, and work and the appropriate location for it on the other can never be closed. All power to the centre!