From the Land Comes Desire
by Adam Cogan
Neoliberal ideology haunts almost every corner of British society. Over decades it has worked tirelessly to convince us that we are inherently selfish, competitive individuals – and has alienated us from each other in the process. Under neoliberalism, the concept of freedom is reconstituted as the ability to own private property and to not have anyone else interfere with what you choose to do with it (within the confines of the law). People inevitably become separated from each other, but also physically from the land – both are now reduced to a privatised form and, in this form, land is emptied of value and meaning, reduced to an asset to be guarded. Healthier ways of relating to each other and the spaces we live in have been exchanged for cold market logic, emphasising growth, ‘efficiency’, profit maximisation, and cost–benefit calculations. Land has ceased to be the site of community, the basis for life. Decades of neoliberal hegemony have thus erased the memory of different ways of relating to the land for the majority of us.
However, everyday people do not just passively absorb the neoliberal consensus. Jeremy Gilbert argues that ‘neoliberal hegemony is dependent on constant work to make sure that popular media stay on-message with a culture of competitive individualism and political apathy ... on deliberate social engineering to make sure that working class communities do not re-discover their own capacities.’ The ultimate ploy of neoliberal ideology, he believes, is to ‘[affect] us negatively in order to make us feel less able to act in the world, less able to think creatively or dynamically’. All this, combined with the capitalist ethos of maximising profit with little genuine concern for social and ecological ‘externalities’, results in devastating effects on both the working class and the natural world.
Yet, neoliberalism has inevitably generated its own response to the ecological crisis: a response which characteristically obscures its social aspect and emphasises the role of the individual, both as consumer and property owner, a response which is also ignorant of issues of class, and as such, is incapable of stirring up any real desire for engagement among much of the working class. If there is to be any hope of overcoming the social and ecological crises which face us, we must reject neoliberal thinking in favour of an ecological politics of desire which centres land and community – built from the bottom up. And the significance of desire is central. As Jared Margulies asks: ‘what worlds do we miss in failing to speak of desire?’
Neoliberalism and a ‘Green and Pleasant Land’
The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. The BBC reports that we are ‘in the bottom ten percent globally for biodiversity’. In pretty much every measure, the UK fares poorly: pollinators are in rapid decline, nearly thirty percent of British birds are at risk of extinction, sewage litters our waterways, industrialised farming has led to the reduction of flying insect populations by sixty percent over the last two decades, flower rich meadows have plummeted from covering thirty percent of the UK a century ago to less than one percent today, and only two percent of the UK remains home to ancient woodlands. In response, government funding for wildlife and nature has been slashed by forty-nine percent in real terms since 2008–2009. Of course, the ailing state of Britain’s land and wildlife has not escaped notice. But the unique character of neoliberal ideology, firmly implanted in the national psyche, has produced its own response to ecological issues, obligingly disseminated – consciously or not – by those bourgeois sections of society who profit most from it. Its primary manifestation is known as ‘lifestyle environmentalism’, a notion that foists responsibility for eco-crisis on each of us as individuals (most notoriously in the form of ‘carbon footprints’) and urges us to find a solution by exercising our privatised power as consumers. A solution which incidentally suits the capitalist class perfectly.
Mainstream attitudes to environmentalism often view people and planet as fundamentally in opposition, maintaining that the only way to conserve nature is to clear it of any human presence and bring it back to a supposed Edenic ‘unspoiled’ state. Claudia Geib notes how the myth of pristine wilderness runs counter to scientific fact, recent studies showing that human activity is not always damaging to nature and can benefit conservation. This attitude is a product of the historic and present class structure found in conservation circles and in the wider environmental movement – a movement that is often criticised for being overly white and middle class, and that has been strongly influenced by a bourgeois liberal tradition which, at least since Thomas Malthus, has been either explicitly or implicitly antagonistic to the majority working population, as well as being racist.
Since neoliberalism’s rise to hegemony, narratives surrounding ecological issues have become ever more infested with bourgeois, neo-Malthusian, capitalist logic (perhaps the most egregious example being E. O. Wilson’s Half Earth Project, where fifty percent of earth would be cleared of human presence – how this would be achieved is frightening to contemplate). This logic formulates ‘nature’ as something ‘over there’, something in bounded confines that we must protect, maybe visit occasionally to enjoy, but otherwise keep off and not interfere with. We can help Nature be safe by buying and doing (or not doing) certain things, but we (as overly reproductive, destructive humans) are ultimately the problem so we should feel bad: absolve your sins with a Patagonia fleece and groceries from Whole Foods (owned by Amazon) – but don’t you dare pursue real systemic change through direct action or otherwise. In effect, the ‘solution’ is couched in typically individualistic and consumerist terminology, and of course often comes with a subtle duplicitous dose (remember, these are ‘polite’ bourgeois professionals here) of racism and anti-working-class antagonism when those less affluent cannot, or do not wish to, partake in this consumer bonanza (‘if only they would …’).
The bourgeois character of environmentalism in the UK is down to the fact that the various channels through which narratives are formed and information is disseminated are dominated by a privileged few. Access to Britain’s most influential media channels has always been, and still is, the preserve of the elite. And the messages carried forward are theirs. Why is this so important? Because this lifestyle environmentalist messaging – with its emphasis on personal consumption, individual action, and its moralistic, holier-than-thou tenor – is simply incapable of fostering a sustained desire for engagement among an ailing working class. On the one hand it preaches ‘green’ consumption, and on the other it asks for yet more sacrifice, yet more austerity, and launches further attacks on the livelihoods of working people without offering any serious alternatives. As a project it is anti-libidinal, a limp suburbanite vision of a bamboo-toothbrush-future where the poor stay poor through their own delinquency, preferably safely interned in urban squalor, and the well-off live an unconcerned lifestyle where they go for leisurely drives across uninhabited country parks in electric SUVs.
Putting a Working Class Desire at the Heart of Ecological Politics
A 2022 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that in the UK one in five people are experiencing poverty (about 14.5 million people). This is, unfortunately, not at all surprising given decades of austerity, dramatic upsurges in the cost of living, years of reactionary neoliberal governance, and a pandemic. Taking this into account, it should immediately become clear why the sort of ecological thinking peddled by the privileged denizens in the media is doomed to failure. Barely anyone struggling to choose between heating and eating is going to be stirred to action by the idea of more buying and spending. So, while manifestations of lifestyle environmentalism – whether as direct consumerism or as exhortations to go out into the country to re-engage in nature – may at first appear relatively innocuous, they inevitably find themselves entangled in a much wider and more serious discussion about why environmental action in the UK is largely failing. And, at the heart of this discussion, is the question of desire.
Desire as a fully theorised concept has a fairly long history, harking back at least to the Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza. For now, it is enough to speak of desire as a propelling force – it is what urges us into motion. For Spinoza, desire drives us to seek out joyous affects (pleasure, delight, joy) and avoid sad affects (pain, sorrow, displeasure). Joyous affects are those that increase our ability to act in the world. In contrast, when we are consumed by sad affects, we are less able to act in the world – this is when we have become influenced by external forces that govern our actions. These forces could stem from people (like a toxic partner), things (like craving junk foods), or even systems and ideologies (like neoliberalism). Under the influence of these forces, Spinoza maintains, we are no longer free, rather we become prisoners to self-destructive impulses. A key takeaway here is that joyous affects increase one’s ability to act in the world (to have greater freedom and agency). John Protevi talks of joyous affect as an ‘[enhanced] capacity for productive relationships with others’. And Jeremy Gilbert defines freedom and agency, very much counter to the privatised, consumer-oriented character of their neoliberal versions, ‘as things which can only be exercised relationally, in the spaces between bodies, as modes of interaction’. By now an outline of desire’s role as a social and political force is beginning to emerge. However, a final key point to note is the influence of external forces (passions) in limiting our ability to act in the world. This is very relevant to how neoliberal capitalism captures and commodifies desire.
Both Mark Fisher and Jeremy Gilbert have written extensively about the shift from Fordism to post-Fordism and neoliberalism. As Fisher notes, while workers had desires for something beyond long monotonous hours on the assembly line, too many on the left (in the words of Sarah Jaffe) ‘sung (and still sing) paeans to the factory floor’. The Thatcherites were quicker off the mark and ‘seized the moment to paint their reorganisation of the economy as liberation’. This shift, explains Gilbert, entailed a ‘move away from a highly regulated, conformist, collectivist, form of social life’ that offered a certain level of accountability to the needs of the governed, moving towards ‘a system which tolerates far higher levels of diversity and personal freedom, so long as that freedom is expressed primarily through private consumption and as long as its expression does not take the form of substantial public claims’.
The consumer imperative which defines the neoliberal concept of freedom is a prime example of Spinoza’s passions. At no time in history has the human psyche been more bombarded by an endless stream of external stimuli, always seeking to tempt us to grind more of ourselves into the machinery of Capital. The result is the opposite of joyous affect – there is no increase in our ability to act in the world or to create productive relationships with others. Rather, we are ever more enslaved to those external forces. Desire, or what passes for it, has been hollowed out to such an extent that now it pretty much operates along behaviourist lines: seek quick bursts of pleasure and avoid sources of pain as much as one can under the circumstances. As we already know, competitiveness, individualism, and what Alex Williams calls ‘negative solidarity’ have become deeply entrenched. Any projects geared towards the resurgence of positive, reciprocal relationships with our environment will always struggle to succeed under such conditions. This is precisely why the kind of ecological messaging cooked up in the neoliberal tradition is so ineffective. Lifestyle environmentalism is essentially making a plea to that metabolised capitalist simulation of desire which seeks to momentarily assuage our guilt and complicity, but which can never address the root causes. It is an ephemeral form that only appeals, if it even truly appeals to anyone, to those with enough resources to try and pursue it.
What we need, rather, is to unearth a post-capitalist desire which speaks to a long-suffering working class, a project that together we can build and bring forth. A politics, as Mark Fisher argued, that focuses ‘on what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care, and enjoy’. A politics evoking a world which could be free – a world which, notes Sarah Jaffe, ‘must be built from those desires that break us out of our rituals, our habits, our melancholic attachment to socialisms past and our need to always be scrolling through our smartphones’. Such a politics must, of course, also be ecological. It is no longer enough (it never was) to harp on about the wonders of the natural world or new green products without addressing wider social and economic issues, nor is it enough to merely sprinkle some ‘diversity’ here and there in the hope that that will bring some change (neoliberalism's solution for almost every social problem). It is necessary to collectively begin formulating and disseminating visions of an ecologically engaged present and future which tap into a broader desire for change. For that to happen, ecological thinking cannot be delinked from social struggles. A working-class desire must be at the heart of a post-capitalist ecological politics. But where to begin?
Unearthing a Post-Capitalist Desire
In an insightful article written for the working-class ecology group, Plan C (Bristol) (‘For a ‘Spoons of the Left’), Dave Brand sets out a vision for what the Left should be doing. He acknowledges that it is at the level of the everyday that neoliberalism gains consent, that ‘neoliberalism is the common sense through which we see the world’. As a response, he makes the case that we ‘need to build up our own hegemony rooted in people’s everyday experiences and articulated with a “socialist common sense”.’ According to Brand, this means creating ‘an infrastructure that can provide shelter and respite from the vagaries of the market and reproduce individuals as “socialists”.’ This could include unions, social centres, football clubs, ‘red gyms’, cultural events and, of course, a ‘Weatherspoon’s of the Left’. All these spaces are, for Brand, ‘places where people can go to act politically but also enjoy themselves, places where people are reproduced as socialists, where the primary logic of the space is not competition and accumulation but solidarity and friendship’. Such places are similar to what Jeremy Gilbert calls ‘spaces of collective creativity’ (to which he would add schools, labs, dancefloors, workshops, and ashrams). Such places would be sites where people can together become empowered through their ability to form those productive, creative relationships that are the essence of joyous affect. Such visions are a good place to start thinking about what the objects of a post-capitalist desire could be. But it is impossible to form a realistic, achievable version of any such project without considering the issue of the land.
According to the Landworkers’ Alliance, the UK has one of the highest levels of concentrated land ownership in the world. Guy Shrubsole, a researcher who has spent years investigating the murky world of British land ownership, has discovered that two thirds of English land is owned by just 0.36 percent of the population, most of these people belonging to aristocratic families. Less than 1 percent of the population own over half of all agricultural land. And about ninety percent of all land in England and Wales is restricted to the public. The enclosure of British land is a deeply historical process that is still ongoing, its primary goal being to turn what was once a common source of life and livelihood into a private source of profit.
At the same time, a report published by Common-Wealth UK explains that the price of land has appreciated sixfold in thirty years, making land (and housing – a large portion of its value being in the land) unaffordable for most people. Meanwhile, urban centres have ‘become safe havens for buy-to-let investors and large-scale property developers ... [transforming these] spaces beyond all recognition, stripping them of their character and increasing the cost of living for long-term residents’. Finally, Yali Banton-Heath reminds us that there are an estimated 226,000 properties lying empty in England alone, yet many people are struggling to afford a home. What emerges is a bitter image of how a tiny minority of wealthy landowners and private enterprises profit from the land, while the urban and rural working classes are battered by the ravages of neoliberal capitalism and face ever worsening prospects.
Reclaiming the land stolen from us holds massive potential for providing both the objects of, and basis for, an ecological post-capitalist desire. On an immediately practical level, there is housing access: new forms of land ownership could reduce housing prices and help to release areas for building new affordable homes for those in need. However, it’s in agriculture and related sectors where the most far-reaching changes could come. Our current mode of industrial agriculture is well-known to be ecologically devastating. According to researcher Kai Heron, nearly three quarters of UK land is used for agriculture – over half of which is grassland for livestock grazing. Much of this grazing land is low-grade and so farmers have to be incentivised to use it. Only a relatively small fraction of farmland is used for producing food for human consumption, with the majority of British food coming from increasingly expensive and ecologically damaging overseas imports. The nature of British commercial land ownership is, as already noted, heavily biased towards the wealthy. Professor Simon Lewis’ research shows that an outsized portion of UK land is reserved for grouse moor and deer-stalking estates – the latter making up almost a tenth of the UK’s total landmass. This is a huge portion of land used solely by a tiny minority of rich people. And, of the millions of pounds in agricultural subsidies handed out by the government, the majority goes to the largest and wealthiest landowners. In fact, in 2015 more money went to the top 100 farmers than the bottom 55,119 recipients combined. Farmers who own less than five hectares receive nothing.
Reclaiming this land for the people would bring about massive benefits to all inhabitants of the UK. For smallholder farmers and the rural working class, who face multiple barriers to entering or thriving in agricultural professions, land reform could increase employment and reduce wealth disparities. Simon Lewis notes that ‘smaller farmers can be more productive, flexible, environmentally conscious, and are often better connected to those living locally.’ A Landworkers’ Alliance report (The Attraction of Agroecology) found growing interest in agroecological farming practices in the UK, but the challenges posed by the nature of British agriculture means that these projects are unable to thrive and expand, and so remain expensive luxury niches in the market. Land reform and adequate support for rural working class people could therefore provide the material base for those ‘spaces of collective creativity’: places where communities can come together to form equitable and productive relationships, build livelihoods, grow cheaply and sustainably, and foster less intensive supply chains with surrounding communities, offering locally grown, affordable produce.
Not only that, but new conceptions of land use boast vast potential for rewilding the UK. Rewilding is not a fanciful issue. Ultimately, the UK cannot sustain itself without its fauna and flora – so much of which guards us against the perils of eco-catastrophe (like floods) and makes food production possible. Only eleven percent of the UK is occupied by humans, and only five percent is densely populated – leaving vast tracts available for rewilding efforts. Much of the land locked up as grouse moor, deer stalking, or low-grade grazing land could be restored to increase carbon stocks and benefit wildlife. Instead of paying farmers to use low-grade land, efforts could be focused on encouraging and enabling farmers to assist in community-led, participatory rewilding and reforesting efforts. The Common-Wealth Rewilding UK report notes that there is potential to thoroughly rewild around a quarter of the UK. This would include working with local farmers to restore under-utilised low-grade land and peatlands, restoring coastal and freshwater areas, expanding the 120,000 hectares of the hedgerows used to enclose private land to form ‘habitat highways’, and restoring green areas around urban centres. They estimate this would bring tens of millions of Britons back into contact with life-filled land. This not only provides further economic opportunities for rural, working-class people, it also promises well-established health and recreational benefits to the population at large, thereby ‘simultaneously tackling the scourges of poverty, inequality, and environmental breakdown’.
Of course, it is important to clarify that this vision of rewilding is not one that sees people and planet as opposed, and therefore premised on more exclusion and enclosure. Instead, it is premised on Robin Wall Kimmerer’s belief that ‘all flourishing is mutual’. A progressive rewilding can, and must, entail a social and economic transformation which sees all inhabitants of the land as partners in a mutually enhancing relationship. One that brings diverse life back to the land, and brings social, economic, and health benefits to people.
Finally, land reform could directly benefit urban communities by providing the material basis for realising communal luxury. With land and property affordable, cultural and civic spaces, parks, and allotments could proliferate. Affordable homes could become available to all. New forms of managing urban and rural economies (which must inevitably come with land reform), such as Public-Common Partnerships (PCPs) (based on collective control of assets and resources), could foster a democratic and egalitarian ethos – giving yet more power back to communities and, according to Keir Milburn and Bertie Russell, countering the neoliberal entrepreneurial common sense with a ‘democratic common sense’ by improving ‘individual and community capacity for self-governance and democratic practice’. They note that such a model is a self-expansive circuit ‘in which the surplus of one PCP helps finance another’. By expanding the potential for democratic self-governance, the material basis for realising an ecological post-capitalist desire based on that ‘collective capacity to produce, care, and enjoy’ becomes ever more feasible. This will be vital, as it is clear that the state and its corporate and aristocratic allies maintain deep vested interests in owning and profiting from the land. As such, the state cannot be relied upon to bring about just ecological transitions for all. These must be imagined, created, and implemented collectively from below.
There is a wealth of radical potential tied up in Britain’s captive lands, and there is nowhere near enough scope here to try and give voice to all of it. Yet narratives surrounding social and ecological issues are dominated by a privileged class who seem unable (or are unwilling) to consider the harsh realities for more disadvantaged members of society, instead offering an unattractive lifestyle environmentalist vision. We must form an alternative narrative that views land not as a series of private places holding ‘natural resources’, waiting on the whims of private consumer-individuals, but as a common wealth – a source of mutual flourishing for all its inhabitants (human and non-human). Crucial for achieving this is building networks which counter the incessant stream of reactionary mis- and dis-information which comes from the legacy media. In addition, social and ecological issues must always be framed, and dealt with, together – not placed in opposition where one party must inevitably suffer or sacrifice. The problem of who owns the land, and how they use it, shows how these two seemingly separate issues are completely interconnected. It is here that that propelling force, desire, is key. Those joyous affects that are the object of a post-capitalist desire – and that make us feel more able to act in the world together, to form productive, creative relationships – are buried in the land. Therein lies the material basis for building those spaces where we can counter that neoliberal everyday common sense and foster a new ecological common sense founded on solidarity, collectivity, and joy. It is time for us to win the land back for working-class people, and to unearth a post-capitalist desire.