AGRARIANISM: primitivism and economics: part 2 of 3


Kevin Rhowbotham © 2013


Well I came upon a child of God,

He was walking along the road
And I asked him tell where are you going,

This he told me:
He said, I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm,

Going to join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land, and set my soul free.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Joni Mitchell 1969

Happy Island, SUPERSTUDIO © 1969

Happy Island, SUPERSTUDIO, © 1969

The establishment of permanent economic sustainability is not the only thorny problem facing any prospective ecological equilibrium. Significant parts of the global population live in mass societies, weaned and nurtured on mono-cultural products, made locally available by global infrastructural exchange. To project an ecological, sustainable, fixed price economy would require, of necessity, that stable market populations be established globally. It would imply a dismantling of usury capitalism and the establishment of stable community populations organised on some long standing and effective social model, such as the extended family. This would require consequently, not merely a comprehensive reduction in population densities, by means of the establishment of fixed procreation rates (as imposed on China as the One-Child Policy[i]) effectively the abandonment of dense urban centres, but a return to the moral and sexual mores so transformed by the foundation and subsequent expansion of the industrial city itself.

Over half the population of the United Kingdom, some thirty-one million people live in just 1% of the UK’s land mass. This is not the UK of course, where the resident population density is some 232 persons per sq. kilometre, but rather Tokyo city, the most populous city on the globe, boasting a total territorial population in excess of thirty-two millions. Tokyo is, however, by no means the most densely populated city on the planet. This accolade falls to Mumbai, India; Population: 14,350,000; Density: 29,650 persons per sq. kilometre; a total density, some 10 times greater than the density of the largest EU urban centres.

Since 2008 urban populations around the globe have exceeded agrarian populations and continue to outstrip them. The world’s population predominantly resides in cities and towns and no longer on the land and in the country. The average city density worldwide rests between 3 and 4,000 persons per sq. kilometre.

Should all the worlds’ cities reach densities similar to Mumbai then the total global population would reach 6-8 times its present total. It is therefore quite realistic to assume that population densities of the kind currently sustained in Mumbai are achievable throughout the globe giving a projected global population total of some 56 billion inhabitants.

Issues raised with respect to the notion of architectural form qua architectural type, might now be re-addressed in terms of the necessity of sustaining a mass culture under the thrall of late capitalism. Those who dream of smaller global populations as a solution to the exasperated sustainability of things as they currently are, may be less than willing to determine and thereby to prosecute solutions for radical population reduction, upon the existing global population. The cure may be less palatable and certainly less politically achievable, than to continue to suffer the consequences of the perceived disease itself. Any forced retrenchment on the freedoms of human reproduction, such as those recently exercised in China, are likely to be dealt with, domestically with similar dissimulations.

Prospective population growth is however substantially affected by the urban condition. Cities with populations in excess of 4.5 millions tend to experience a reduction in population growth and cities with populations in excess of 8-9 millions, a steady state. The future, one might argue, with the benefit of such hindsight, could now be entirely urban and as a consequence, and in the fullness of time, relatively stable.

A contemporary architectural typology, a contemporary study of architectural form as a sub-category of urban form, wishing to be at once ecologically credible and temporally sustainable, would be a typology in which the conditions of a new urban scale must be broached.

There are those, the anarcho-primitivists[ii], who argue for such a population reduction. Some argue that a substantial reduction in global population is at least required to affect a return to the ‘stable’ social structures which preceded any division of labour. They fail, however, to acknowledge the counter intuitive evidence which shows that dense urban populations, in cities in excess of 4,000,000 inhabitants, record reductions in their rates of population growth, making dense urban centres rather than sparse agrarian communities more effective contexts for the stabilisation of population numbers. This phenomenon is common and reliable enough for the United Nations[iii] to predict that the global population will stabilise at between none and ten billion inhabitants.


Peak global population

Agrarianism In The Service Of Anti-Design?

If the establishment of human communities with fixed price exchange economies is feasible at all, they would require as a matter of necessity, the creation of distinct forms of liquidity, (private currencies) which would have to function beneath the existing system of capital exchange, in order to avoid the reduction of money value suffered under the current conditions of capital usury. Usury creates inflation. Municipal governance, central governance and the organisation of the state economy itself would need to be renovated, not to say, completely dismantled, as would extant legal systems, which currently outlaw private tender activities. Tax systems will distort any notional fixed price economy to boot, and must be swept away to facilitate fixed and permanently stable price regimes.

Clearly whatever might be called ‘agrarian’ today, no less than ‘landscape urbanism’ or ‘agrarian urbanism’, under the thrall of neo-liberal capitalism, is neither an egalitarian redistribution of property, a prospective cultural and economic re-ordering of society, nor a project which might proffer any permanent creation of a sustainable ecological equilibrium.

To place agrarianism at the service of the industrial city, as amelioration rather than as any structural revision of its core urban malaise, seems for all the world to be an opportune aesthetic inversion, which offers solutions to urban aesthetic degradation rather than economic, political, cultural and social degradation and renders it as landscape rather than as stone and steel. This is merely a dissimulating exchange of forms masquerading as a structural solution.

This critique can be laid at the door of landscape urbanism which assumes that the nature of the modernist industrial city is blighted by a failure of aesthetic appropriateness rather than anything else. It fails to accept that the demands of mass culture and the necessity for the division of labour to support it, made manifest by the machinations of commodity capitalism, is structural to the morphology of the city proper. In point of fact any sustainable ecological revision of urbanism must need to be far more structural and deep rooted (radical) than any revisionist rebranding of the terms of aesthetic engagement with urban morphology.

There is little in the history of architecture concerning issues of agrarian settlement which is not always and already urban. Architecture by its very nature is a product of the city and not of the country. Any notion of Architecture no less than the very idea of the Polis itself is ante-agrarian (postlapsarian; after the deluge). Disaffection for an instrumental corporate urbanism was last at its most vociferous, not in the eighties when post-modern urbanism attempted a weak, a-political amelioration of the industrial city morphology, but rather in the sixties when a full blown dystopian critique emerged both in France in Italy and to a much lesser degree in the U.K. and the U.S.

Challenging the optimism and utopianism of Architecture as a cultural project and challenging the industrial city as its monumental consequence, groups such as the Situationist International, Superstudio and Archizoom rejected Architecture as a benevolent force, arguing that it exacerbated rather than solved social and environmental problems. ‘Anti-design’ solutions offered echoes of Jeffersonian idealism by default, and a return to a notional nomadism and autonomism[i], beyond or above the capitalist megalith, prefiguring the re-establishment of aspects of a semi-nomadic agrarian communalism.

Autonomy, the idea that human groups might established social organisations within and  beyond the capitalist system, emerged as a popular political idea after the Second World War following and Khrushchev’s revelations of the Stalin purges in 1956, a revelation which caused  the European political left to suffer a significant crisis of confidence.

Autonomic political tendencies began to appear in the late fifties finding popular expression in alternative urban life styles; The Beat Generation, and other quasi-autonomous sub-cultures such as the Hippie movement, expressed not merely a deep seated disaffection for the ‘system’, but attempted to establish alternative community structures outside it.  Interest in quasi-nomadic, quasi-agrarian community structures, grounding this expressed need for autonomy, emerged in the most radical architectural work of the time. Rather than procuring an adumbrated futurism from the demands of the modern industrial city in the manner of the international Modernists, who blithely aestheticized the consequences of usury capitalism – its monotony, its anomie, its temporal tedium – critical architectural works generated an anti-design, anti-architecture critique by illuminating a prospective end game for a totalising architecture.


1. Superstudio, Supersurface-Life, 1972

2. Superstudio, The Continuous Moment series, 1969

3. Superstudio, The Continuous Moment series, 1969

The following text is an extract from “Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas”, a storyboard of 12 ideal-cities prepared by Superstudio for Architectural Design and published in 1971. The text was written by Piero Frassinelli and documents the imagined consequences of a totalising architecture and its construction of what Adfolfo Natalini called ‘negative utopias’ (see reference below).


Seventh City: Continuous Conveyor Belt City .

 The city moves, unrolling like a majestic serpent; over new lands, taking its 8 million inhabitants on a ride through valleys and hills, from the mountains to the seashore, generation after generation. The head of the city is the Grand Factory, 4 miles wide and 100 yards high, like the city it continuously produces … The Grand Factory devours shreds of useless nature and unformed minerals at its front end and emits sections of completely formed city, ready for use, from its back end.

The greatest aspiration of every citizen is to move more and more often into a new house because the houses produced are continually modernized and equipped with the yet more perfect commodities that the Administrative Council invents for the joy of the citizens. The Great Families move monthly into the houses just built, following the rhythm of the Grand Factory. The other citizens do their best and only those with little willpower and the laziest wait for four years before moving house. Luckily, it is not possible to live in the same house for more than four years after its construction; after this period, objects, accessories and the structure of the houses themselves decay, become unusable and soon after collapse. Only society’s rejects, mad or insane individuals, still dare to wander amongst the ruins, the detritus and rubble that the city leaves behind it.

What could be more stimulating than the continual rivalry between all citizens in trying to live on parallel streets with the most recent dates? What day could be happier than when you move into your new house, and your Director gives you a day off on special grounds and congratulates you? What hour could be happier than when you enter your new home and discover all your new things, your new equipment, your new clothes and everything else the Grand Factory has prepared for you?

Admire the city from above, with its great black head, plumed with the smoke of thousands of factory chimneys, with its tidy body 8 miles long, with at its centre the grandiose crest of skyscrapers, flanked by great blocks of popular housing estates, and stretches of villas with gardens at the edges; with its interminable wake of rubble indicating the ground covered.

Piero Frassinelli ©1971

Adolfo Natalini speaking in 2003 about Superstudio…

“In the beginning, we designed rather fantastic objects for production in wood, steel, glass, brick or plastic. That was at the beginning, in 1966. Then we turned to the production of usable objects like chairs, tables and cabinets, but these were designed in a deliberately neutral way, a criticism of consumer culture and the continuous drive for novelty. Finally, in 1969, we started designing negative utopias like Il Monumento Continuo, images warning of the horrors architecture had in store with its scientific methods for perpetuating standard models worldwide. Of course, we were also having fun.”

Adolfo Natalini ©2003

The power of the term ‘agrarian’ has been exaggerated in the 20th century by an inferred distinction between a simple and harmonious rural life, and the corrupting discord of the industrial city. This insidious and wholly inaccurate opposition has created a distorting lens through which all aspects of agrarian settlement are habitually viewed. This distortion is most evident, in the present day, with respect to contemporary notions of ruralism and urbanism. Architects need to take stock of the realpolitik of city creation and of those who continue to depend upon it. The city and the country are not antithetical, nor are they exclusive. They cannot be played as alternative narratives, the one conveniently displacing the other, in times of crisis.

part 3 to follow

[i] Autonomism or Autonomous Marxism is a set of left-wing political and social movements and. As a theoretical system, it first emerged in Italy in the 1960’s from workerist (operaismo) communism. Later, post-Marxist and anarchist tendencies became significant after influence from the Situationists, the failure of Italian far-left movements in the 1970s, and the emergence of a number of important theorists including Antonio Negri, who had contributed to the 1969 founding of Potere Operaio, as well as Mario Tronti, Paolo Virno, Franco Berardi “Bifo”, etc.

[i]  One-Child Policy: This policy was introduced in 1978 and initially applied from 1979. It was created by the Chinese government to alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems in China, and authorities claim that the policy has prevented more than 250 million births between 1980 and 2000, and 400 million births from about 1979 to 2011.


[ii] See John Moore, ‘A Primitivist Primer’

[iii] See Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division  paper ‘WORLD POPULATION TO 2300’

[i] Anarcho-primitivism is an anarchist critique of the origins and progress of civilization. According to anarcho-primitivism, the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural subsistence gave rise to social stratification, coercion, and alienation. Anarcho-primitivists advocate a return to non-“civilized” ways of life through deindustrialisation, abolition of the division of labour or specialization, and abandonment of large-scale organization technologies.

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