Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

April 20, 2012

Potatoes, Peasants and Paradeisophobia

Filed under: gardening, Soapbox — Tags: , , , , , , — paragardener @ 4:05 pm

“The indolent and turbulent habits of the lower Irish can never be corrected while the potato system enables them to increase so much beyond the regular demand for labor.” – Reverend Thomas Malthus

During the mid-1600’s, England seized most of Ireland’s good agricultural land for Protestant owners, and forced Catholics into swamps and other lousy areas. Catholics went from owning 60% of the land to 8%. Many of the new owners made their living by exporting wheat or other commodities to England, shrinking away Ireland’s food supply. This was a disaster, and many Irish clans might have been headed for extinction. Fortunately, the potato had recently been carried to Europe from its home in the Andes. Potatoes generated more food per acre than any other crop known, and they provide as nearly complete nutrition as you could hope for out of a single food. The Irish increased  on a fraction of the land they’d once farmed, going from three to eight million in a century.

English economist Arthur Young. in his Tour of Ireland, found potato plots ranging from half an acre to and acre and a half in size. Typically, a plot would be sharecropped for no money, but merely the right to live on the land, keep a cow or two and eat some potatoes! Young found this potentially exploitative, but on the other hand, it meant that peasants were not subject to fluctuations in the price of food (the English poor sometimes rioted over the price of bread). In several ways, having no cash and farming your own milk and potatoes was better than the English system of getting paid wages of almost no money, and being subject to firings, price spikes, or costly vice binges.

William Cobbett, an English journalist and politician, railed against potatoes as a trap for the poor. He believed potatoes to be less nutritious than wheat, fooling the poor by filling their bellies with worthless bulk. Cobbett also had a visceral aversion to potatoes: they had to be stored in root cellars instead of pantries; they reduced potato eaters into uncultured hogs; they lacked the elegance of uniform white flour and its rise into airy bread. Potatoes didn’t require “preparation, forethought, and attention,” thus depriving the poor of character-building opportunities. To Cobbett, growing your own food meant exiling yourself from civilization and culture. It would be better, in his view, to buy white flour on the free market and die if the free market didn’t need you. (See “Selections from Cobbett’s political works.”)

Concern for the plight of the poor really drifts towards the genocidal in the works of Thomas Malthus. “Does [Arthur Young] seriously think that it would be an eligible thing to feed the mass of people in this country on milk and potatoes, and make them as independent of the price of corn, and the demand for labor, as their brethren in Ireland?” To Malthus, there should be no more poor people than the wealthy need to employ — the rest of the population is “redundant.” The price of grain is a free market mechanism for regulating the numbers of poor people — when their wretchedness and misery is uglying the country up, it’s time for a rise in grain prices to kill some of them off. Potatoes were a problem because they lifted the poor too far from starving. (See “An essay on the principle of population.”)

As I was shoveling two years’ worth of compost into a raised bed, I contemplated how worthless my yard is to the market. I don’t fertilize the lawn or herbicide the weeds, and I laugh at the little cards Home Depot sends me, telling me what projects I’m supposed to be working on at this time of year (invariably, these projects are purely decorative). Practices like composting and seed saving add nothing to the GDP! How useless!

Governments seem to have an irrational hostility to gardens, as I wrote about a couple of posts ago. Someone pointed out to me that the hostility exudes also from the upper classes. The aversion could be termed paradeisophobia, to carelessly jam together a couple of Greek roots. People with a little power want to keep the wee folk dependent and under control — whether on government or capital, or just on Home Depot’s outdated, consumerist, Leave It to Beaver vision of suburban bliss.

The power dynamic of paradeisophobia is shown in the putting-down of the Whiskey Rebellion, when our country almost fought a second Revolutionary War over attempts to tax whiskey. In the far hinterlands of Pennsylvania, pioneers were using whiskey as currency. Whiskey was relatively valuable for its bulk and weight, and enough people wanted it that anyone could confidently trade in it. Hard liquor is agricultural wealth, distilled. Pioneers needed their own currency, being far removed from sources of official money — so they grew their own! Taxing the whiskey was a way to force the pioneers into using the government’s currency, undercutting the independence of their communities. Government forces put the rebellion down but never succeeded in collecting much of the tax, which was repealed in 1800.

You don’t need to even grow food or medicine to inspire paradeisophobia. Pygmies were recently hunter-gatherers, not known to grow any crops except cannabis. Consider the rainforest as a no-tech garden. In 1985, Sandor Katz took a tour of Africa and saw Pygmies working on plantations, farming cocoa. Says Katz, “We came to understand that the government was trying to force these people to settle into cash-crop agriculture. Their migratory lifestyle was being outlawed, phased out because it was of no value to a state in desperate pursuit of tax revenue and foreign exchange to pay off debts to global financial institutions.”

I can understand why people at the top of the heap feel differently, but in my view people don’t exist to serve markets, markets exist to serve people. If there is such a thing as a “free market,” that means at a minimum that you are free to walk away and provide a need for yourself. Think I’ll try to get something edible planted today…



  1. Of course I agree with everything you say here. But what I want to know is, what are you planting? We’re not past frost-free date yet …

    Comment by Kris — April 20, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

    • Well, I didn’t get to planting today, but I did find enough junk to put together a seed-starting setup on a work bench in the basement. And outside, there are surely frost-resistant things I can plant when I’ve got beds and containers ready (it’s quite a bit milder here.than an hour and a half away, where you are). I need to consult the Midwest gardener’s manual I stole from you.

      Comment by paragardener — April 21, 2012 @ 2:04 am

      • You can direct-seed peas,lettuce, spinach, kale, broccoli (I think) … and yes, consult the manual. We’re late getting our seeds started so I guess we’ll have a late harvest this year. I’m ambivalent about planting because we’ve had rotten luck for the last two or three years, but James is insistent. Hoping for the best. Hey, and I know you’ll appreciate this: we’ll have asparagus any day!

        Comment by Kris — April 21, 2012 @ 9:59 am

  2. So potatoes aren’t classy enough for Cobbett? Has he ever tried potatoes AND bread? Throw in some whiskey and you’ve got some REAL culture right there. Potatoes, flour, whiskey… what else do you really need?!

    Comment by wilfridcyrus — April 21, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

    • Well, you need a cow, if you don’t want to die of no-vitamin-A. I’ve no doubt that the peasants would’ve liked more learning opportunities and a chance to take in the ballet, but a lot of culture can develop right out of the fields… think monastery gardens and French cheeses.

      Comment by paragardener — April 21, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

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