NS Essay - 'Capitalism itself is a false target; the evil is the form we have now, which Jefferson, Madison and Keynes all warned against'

Even Gordon Brown and Clare Short want corporations to get stuck in to poor countries and make them

For the past few years, I have been writing a book about food: how much we need (each of us, and humanity as a whole); how to produce it; how to raise what is wanted without wrecking rural communities and the environment, while avoiding cruelty to animals; why BSE and foot-and-mouth disease happened (cut-price husbandry); and whether genetic manipulation is a good thing (it could be but, as things are, it very definitely is not). Agriculture is essentially a craft, probably 40,000 years old, while the science that makes a differ-ence to it has been with us for less than a century. In a nutshell, what is needed is good husbandry - excellent craft - abetted by excellent science; and such a combination might be called "enlightened agriculture". But at present science is deployed to override good husbandry, to cut costs. The cutting of costs is held to be all-important; not to provide cheap food, as governments pretend (and perhaps believe) but to maximise the difference between cost and sale price, this difference being the "profit".

As the book took shape it became increasingly clear that the fly in the ointment, the thing that threatens all humanity, is not lack of technique or even the lack of land or water, but the economics and the politics. It is not capitalism per se that is at fault. A system of food production that really works, and could be operated worldwide, would probably have to be fundamentally capitalist. At least, nobody has come up with a truly workable alternative - and it is not clear that it is necessary to do so.

But it is the version of capitalism that matters. We need the 19th-century US model - which essentially was trade as envisaged by Adam Smith, with small(ish) farmers and processors doing their thing, albeit abetted by import and export. What we have now is neo-monetarism. Everything, and all human endeavour, is translated into money. Money thus becomes like language, with cash standing in for real things, just as words stand in for ideas. For some philosophers, particularly in the early 20th century, words were all that mattered: philosophy was nothing but the meaning of words. Whatever could not easily be expressed, and resolved by wordplay, was held to be meaningless. It is the same with the neo-monetarists. If it isn't expressed in cash, it need not delay us. But words and money are simply abstractions. They are for convenience, for communication, for easy manipulation. They should not be mistaken for reality.

The shortcomings of philosophy based only on the meaning of words soon became obvious, and now it is essentially passe. But the world is still in the throes of economics based just as falsely on the notion that reality can be safely encompassed, and orchestrated, just by manipulating money. John Maynard Keynes warned that real things could become "flotsam on the whirlpool of money". Now his nightmare has come about. The goal of all respectable endeavour is to maximise the monetary gap between the cost of production and the price at sale; enterprises that produce the greatest gap are said to be the most "efficient" and efficiency is held, self-evidently, to be a good thing.

Again, there is nothing wrong with profit as such. But profit should be a way of monitoring performance - keeping score - and of accumulating capital for the next investment. Once money itself becomes the raison d'etre, and its maximisation the prevailing ideal, the world is in trouble: the abstraction takes over from reality. If the abstraction reflected reality perfectly, as the monetarists claim it can, this would be fine. But it does not. The most important inputs (such as the climate) and outputs (such as human dignity) can be the most difficult to cost, and so do not appear on the balance sheet. In reality, too, only those who have money in the first place can play the money game. The neo- monetarist formula contains no mechanisms of social justice.

Technology, especially high technology, lends itself beautifully to the increase of "efficiency" and the maximisation of profit. It replaces human labour with machines. Much labour is hard and generally awful ("In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread," was God's curse on Adam and Eve as he expelled them from the easy pickings of Eden) and machines in general are good. The Cistercians, most spiritual of monks, were very keen on them. But labour is also dignity, and the key to autonomy.

Adam Smith's market, left to itself, is not stable. Traders do not remain individualists. They tend to consolidate, partly by natural selection (groups do better than individuals) and partly (I am inclined to suggest) through what physicists call "complexity": organised structures invariably arise out of chaotic systems, whether the system is a bunch of ciphers in a computer programme, molecules of water in the wake of a ship, or a market. By such means, companies arise. They are not a bad thing, either. But the founders of the modern United States, notably Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, knew that companies could grow too big, and override the societies that gave rise to them. So they made laws to forbid the growth of companies beyond the margins of the state - "state" meaning Virginia or Maryland, not the US as a whole. Those laws have long since gone by the board. The growth of companies into giant corporations is the most significant political phenomenon of the 20th century - unlike fascism or communism, it is the enduring legacy.

Science-assisted technology makes the growth possible. Indeed, we now have a positive feedback loop. Capital finances science (not least because governments are more and more reluctant to do so), which in turn provides the kind of high technologies that will produce more capital; and so on and so on. Science has become the handmaiden of commerce (and it is distressing how eagerly so many scientists have accepted the corporatist shilling); and although science really could help to better the lot of all humanity, and perhaps has most to offer the poorest, in reality it can do only those things that swell the corporate coffers.

As corporations grow, they become global in scale. Eventually, it does not matter whose country belongs to whom. All countries become mere territory, and a source of labour for the corporations - the cheaper the better. Imperialism is dead not because it is outlawed but because it is no longer necessary. There is no need to go to the trouble and expense of occupying somebody else's country if you can occupy the space without such effort.

So the present economy is capitalism in an extreme form: a form that earlier, broader thinkers (Jefferson, Madison, Keynes) specifically warned against. It may be summarised as monetarist/ industrialist/corporatist/globalist: MICG. Capitalism in itself is not the evil. That is a false target. MICG very definitely is; and the people who spelled out the evil most cogently were capitalists themselves. Edward Heath once spoke of "the unacceptable face of capitalism". That face is now official world policy.

All this is what the modern, thinking left wing knows in its bones and often expresses, at least in part. But there are two more issues, more immediately frightening.

The first has to do specifically with agriculture. My quarrel is not with globalisation per se any more than with capitalism per se. We can surely see many contexts in which it seems sensible. In computers, say, standardisation really is a good thing; and so, too, is the instant communication across continents that a global information technology system allows. Computers in their modern form are not the tool of fascism, as Shirley Williams was once wont to argue; the internet could prove a godsend to democracy. But it is a huge mistake to suppose that because globalisation is good in some contexts, it is good in all; and an even bigger mistake to suppose that it is good simply because it helps to make corporations even stronger than they already are.

The MICG model, applied to agriculture, is a disaster at all levels. Agriculture is the most important material endeavour of humankind. If we get it right, then we have a fair chance that we can get everything else right as well: a sound and diverse environment; just and balanced societies worldwide (autonomous, dignified, with full and satisfying employment); and a sustainable supply of good food - not just nourishing, but the kind that people like to eat. But if we get agriculture wrong, then, as in Greek tragedy, in which initial folly sets off a domino wave of disaster, everything else will be compromised, to the point of catastrophe.

A couple of obvious points will make the case. First, husbandry that is both sustainable and safe - that cares for the landscape, and takes no great risks with disease - requires a lot of intelligent people to do the work. The epidemics of foot-and-mouth disease and BSE resulted entirely from bad husbandry - bad because it was cut-price, employing the smallest conceivable labour force. Yet MICG agriculture worldwide is designed expressly to reduce labour, and hence to guarantee that farming worldwide is run increasingly on the kind of wing and a prayer that have so recently proved disastrous for Britain.

Second, employment matters. In this country, if a supermarket or a factory cuts a thousand jobs it is national news, as it should be. But Britain's farm industry loses this number every month, and has done for years. This, by some extraordinary reasoning, is felt to be both inevitable and a good thing. In third world countries (the euphemism "developing" is in many ways pernicious) agriculture typically employs at least half the total workforce: in Angola, roughly 70 per cent, in Rwanda, roughly 90 per cent. If the MICG model is introduced into those countries (and this is the intention) then there will be unemployment on a scale that would make the Britain of the 1930s seem self-indulgent. What are ex-farmers supposed to do? Some might become waiters, some taxi drivers. Others will be prostitutes (many third world farmers are women), others muggers, and still others guerrilla fighters. Indeed, this is already the norm.

We can argue that 90 per cent of the whole labour force is too many to employ on the land. The remaining 10 per cent is clearly not enough to run a balanced society, with teachers, builders, plumbers and so on. On the other hand, Britain and the US now employ not much more than 1 per cent of their workforce full-time on the land. Jefferson saw America as a nation of small farmers, but in the present US more people are in jail than work full-time on farms, and the two facts are surely not unconnected. Ninety per cent may be regrettably high; but less than 2 per cent is absurdly and dangerously low. The difference is that everyone knows that 90 per cent is too high but 2 per cent is, in effect, the official world target.

Worst of all is that Britain's present government, which dares to put the word "Labour" in its title, has sold out to the new MICG approach, both in general and in the specific context of agriculture; both at home and abroad, where it presumes to impose its conceits on poor countries.

Iraq brought home the general point to me. Tony Blair is not simply supporting the regime of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld. He clearly admires it. More specifically, we can see from the desperate efforts of Lord (Larry) Whitty, the under-secretary of state for farming, food and sustainable energy, of Sir John Krebs, the chairman of the Food Standards Agency, and others, how necessary they feel it is to ram the square peg of British agriculture into the round hole of modern global commerce.

In his efforts to make Britain's food safer, Sir John is now rapping the knuckles of oyster farmers, like some school matron of yesteryear. Meanwhile, the great evils - the battery hens with their salmonella; the lack of abattoirs which requires infected animals to be raced around the country en route to slaughter; the hundred-strong dairy herds looked after by a single worker - are left untroubled. The powers that be seem to take it as self-evident that the MICG model must prevail; that costs must continue to be cut - or we will be undercut by imports not only from America but also from Angola. The mantra now taught in colleges of agriculture (which, strangely, still exist, though it is not clear what the graduates will do) is that "farming is just a business like any other". No it isn't.

Gordon Brown and Clare Short have also made clear their belief that the MICG approach is right for poor coun- tries - which is particularly disturbing given that, to the intellectual left, Brown has acquired the status of desperate last hope. At a recent meeting at Chatham House, they both advocated just this: that corporations should get stuck in to Africa and Asia with all possible vigour, and take their new industrial methods with them, but that they should exercise a little social responsibility. Their incentive would be to create and tap new markets - the billion people of Africa who buy very little but could buy far more if they had any money.

Africa, Clare Short tells us, will grow vegetables for Europe. Not, one might conclude from even the most cursory visit to Tesco's, if the farmers of Europe itself or America or New Zealand or Australia or Israel, or at least a score of other countries which are already well ensconced in the western market, have anything to do with it. But for the hypothetical opportunity to break in to western markets, Angola and a hundred other countries are being invited to sacrifice their labour force, and give up such autonomy as is left to them. I don't believe, not for one passing second, that Brown, Short, Whitty or Krebs are anything other than well-meaning. But in this they are seriously misguided.

So what's to be done? Coherence is the thing. As I argue in my book, there are good ideas and institutions already in place. They include at one end of the scale the attempts of some small farmers in Britain and the US to provide "real" food (often organic, but not necessarily) and the willingness of many consumers to buy it.

At the other end they include the genius, the minute organisation and sheer craft of farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America, who know precisely what they are doing and why, yet have been so overridden, neglected and indeed abused by western innovators and exploiters these past two centuries, and now with increasing vigour. But all the good initiatives need to be brought together in a single philosophy - which I call "enlightened agriculture".

And we need to ask even deeper, more general questions, such as how to install a robust model of capitalism that really does serve human needs; how to release science from its feedback loop; and what "morality" should really mean, and how to reinstate it as the prime driver of human affairs.

The greatest puzzle of all (again illustrated by Iraq) is how societies of thinking, humane people allow themselves to be led so disastrously astray by those who have clearly got it wrong. We need to readdress the question posed by Hobbes in the 17th century, and ask whether we need governments at all. Almost certainly we do, but not the kind we have, that do the kinds of things they do.

Colin Tudge's So Shall We Reap will be published by Penguin this autumn