The agriculture we deserve

While criticism accumulates around agribusiness, Matthieu Calame affirms that no real agricultural transition can take place until the political and cultural frameworks also change.

More than a new work by Deep History global, Rooting agriculture is an essay which starts from a historical reflection. The main thesis is simple and has a solid intellectual genealogy: every society is the product of a triple regime, productive, political and symbolic, the three being necessarily in adequacy. From then on, the transition from one form of society to another occurs when the elites shift ideologically and produce a new political system, likely to win the support of the majority through a mutation of the symbolic regime and its shared values ​​(p. 37). There is no point, therefore, in focusing our current critiques on agriculture and agribusiness without considering the systems that produced them.

The horizon of the book is of course the ecological transition. Following in the footsteps of the many thinkers and activists, from Dominique Bourg Cyril Dion, who call for a transformation of the dominant discourses and the great stories of our time, Matthieu Calame undertakes to show through history that agriculture, and more generally the system of production , is not an area that we can reform without rebuilding the very foundations of our societies.

Peasant communities, agrarian empires and merchant thalassocracies

At the heart of the demonstration, we therefore find a half-chronological, half-typological story, retracing the main historical mutations of production systems. The proposed scenario is as follows. During the Neolithic era, domestication societies emerged, which gave rise to a sedentary lifestyle and the birth of peasant communities. This is the end of organized hunter-gatherer societies against the state, in the sense of Pierre Clastres, that is to say to avoid the concentration of political power in certain hands. Then begins a further reduced hierarchy. The works left by these societies are dominated by animal representations, and religions marked by a shamanic aspect which appears through the multitude of zoomorphic deities. Then a more aristocratic spirit developed, visible in the popes and the appearance of monumental tombs: this was the birth of leaders.

Then follow the societies of hierarchy, starting from IVe millennium, when writing, cities, but also monarchical forms developed. Here we find certain elements of the demonstration led by James C. Scott in Homo Domesticus, without however embracing his thesis of an enslavement of domesticated individuals within the state. Matthieu Calame proposes to include in the category of agrarian empire all centralized organizations which function thanks to an administration subject to the monarch, from Uruk to the absolute monarchies of XVIIIe century. DHammourabi Napoleon, the monarch is the one who dispenses the law and bread, thanks to a large-scale grain policy often based on cereal farming. Cereal lands are concentrated near the capital or in accessible areas (rather by water than by road), while the margins are dedicated to cash crops whose price justifies transport. This political and economic unification also allows marked agricultural specializations and precise selections of species, for example in the field of arboriculture. Reflecting an imperial vision, the art of the garden then focused on an orderly staging of nature.

Faced with these two extreme categories, the community and the empire, the author proposes a third model: that of the commercial thalassocracy. Carthage, Syracuse, Venice, the Netherlands, but also to a certain extent the Roman Republic or England of the XVIIe century are thus brought together in that certain social classes share political responsibilities. Unlike agrarian empires, the goal is not the maximized exploitation of peasants, because the existence of a shared identity entails a concern to protect them, even if it means moving this exploitation beyond borders. Indeed, the thalassocracy focuses on high value-added production and trusts the market to source cereals elsewhere. Endowed with a more instrumental and adaptable vision of the world, this regime is however dependent on external economic and ecological conditions.

Grophilosophy facing history

Calame says it clearly: his work is an essay in agro-philosophy, a discipline whose development he hopes to develop. There is therefore no need to seek here a global vision of past agrarian systems. The discussion often focuses on the Mediterranean until the end of Antiquity, and then on Europe since, for example, the Abbasid caliphate is not presented as a case of an agrarian empire. But the categories proposed are designed to be global, from the Meso-American empires to China and Japan, which we find several times.

The only nuance that we could suggest relates more to the chronological narrative. Indeed, our knowledge of ancient societies depends on archaeology, which, as the author notes, also leads to names based on production techniques (Bronze Age, Iron Age). It is certainly an excellent demonstration of the weight of the productive regime in the organization of societies. But it is also an element which calls for great caution regarding any non-hierarchical or weakly hierarchical vision of prehistoric societies, from hunter-gatherers to the first village communities. Likewise, we can wonder about the place of these village communities after the IVe millennium, since they always remain politically active within successive state formations.

On the other hand, the multiplication of references leads to a real pleasure in reading, and the historical collisions allow some strong observations to emerge. For example, the fact that all recorded state forms, empires and thalassocracies alike, have developed basic public policies supported by the financing of large-scale supply and storage infrastructures. An example: even Venice owns its warehouses, manages to finance a fleet with significant economic and ecological costs, and ensures its population with the supplies necessary for social stability. These telescopings lead us to look at our own systems from the angle of comparison.

From the limits of growth to the malaise in society

Faced with our current symbolic system, the observation is clear: the author affirms that it is already in crisis. Indeed, science has gradually established itself as a political principle, justifying for example the use of economics to legitimize the social order. Also everything that was not quantifiable was relegated to a blind spot in the political field, whether it was biodiversity, soil quality or even social stability. While Big Data promises to be the next revolution, this symbolic regime reaches a dead end, since science itself also warns against climate change, and therefore ceases to be at the service of an entirely industrial productive system. From then on, the values ​​of self-improvement for the elites, as well as leisure and consumerism for the majority of the population, are no longer enough to win the support of all.

How to regain social stability without the myth of perpetual growth? From one chapter to the next, the idea that: the emergence of a new existential perspective will probably be the main difficulty in the transition from industrial to ecological societies (p. 229). Among other examples, the author recalls that cooperatives and agricultural unions have become among the most fervent supporters of industrialization, and in fact even an illustration of Jared Diamond's thesis according to which the inability of certain societies to escape from their dominant cultural model can contribute to their collapse. The advent of this cultural transition is therefore a necessary prerequisite, already started by certain groups and certain currents of thought, but it is now a question of moving from marginality to the heart of our discourses and our institutions.

Reforming our agriculture: a global political issue

We then enter the field of politics, through a series of proposals, the most interesting of which concern agricultural systems. The first follows from previous historical observations. At all times, the model of the large estate dependent on an absentee owner is presented as a frequent cause of underexploitation. As for systems based on tenure, when an owner entrusts his land for a specific period to a farmer, they encourage unsustainable agriculture. To avoid the creation of vast poorly developed properties, the tax lever, and in particular the creation of high taxes on land, then appears to be a solution with historically demonstrated effectiveness.

Translated into contemporary terms, these observations are a critique of the CAP, which does not provide for any European property tax. It is also an explanation of the success of agro-industrial firms to the detriment of family farming, which allowed certain farmers to continue to own their land despite chronic debt. This industrial agriculture, dependent on public aid, employs fewer and fewer workers (around 2%), while its productivity is impossible to quantify by taking into account all the parameters (purchases of inputs and very specialized equipment, mineralization of soils, production of surpluses). destroyed, etc.). However, no transition can be put in place without changing, at least, the fiscal and legal frameworks that produced this system.

The list of recommended measures also affects the orientations of subsidies. In particular, those which led to the hegemony of grain. Indeed, the growth in grain production in the second half of XXe century has come at the expense of other plants, such as legumes, even though the latter provide nitrogen to the soils in which they are cultivated. In addition, surplus cereals have enabled the development of above-ground livestock farming by providing a new source of food for animals. This call to take into account the material realities of our political choices finally appears in the economic field, where we find the idea put forward by several environmentalists according to which a system of monetary pluralism would be beneficial, in particular if it created a scale of values ​​not indexed on gold but , for example, on biomass or even on a carbon footprint system. No single solution, therefore, but grain to grind to move in the right direction.


Rooting agriculture is an extraordinary work due to the diversity of the fields it covers. It is also a very optimistic book, which postulates that this transition has already begun through experiments carried out on a small scale, and that it will necessarily be marked by more cooperation and conviviality. But his message remains firmly anchored on earth, constantly repeating that it is through a transformation of the legislative and fiscal system that these still minority experiences will be able to impose themselves on the whole of society and the productive system. Change stories, certainly, but in order to ultimately also change the political framework.