A Leftism of the Garden
Land is the very ground of our being, and most of us have none of it.
What we all are, past those multitudes of identities, is human; bodies who labor, who desire, who need, who create, and who are in the end much more like each other than different. This is the only place leftist politics can start from: our shared needs, our common material conditions, the exploitation of our labor, and the political control over our existence as bodies.
My husband and I have been eating a lot of salad this year. Not as part of a diet, or even in some attempt to get healthier. Instead, it’s because we’ve got so damn much of it. And it’s late July, and only now have the greens I planted in spring finally begun to dwindle.
I suspect a lot of my readers are probably gardeners, so you already know what this is like. Feel free to read along and smile, while I explain to those who don’t yet garden.
Back in March, I cleared out a couple of long planting boxes on our balcony, and then emptied half of a packet of pflücksalat seeds (salad greens you can pluck leaves from as they grow without killing them) into the soil. That packet cost a bit under 2 euros, a little less than the cost of a small grocery store package of mixed greens. By early April, I was already eating my first salads, and five months after I planted them, we still have more than we can use.
Lettuces are really easy to grow. Keep them watered, out of extreme direct sun, and make sure slugs and snails can’t get to them, and you otherwise have to do almost nothing except eat them. Plucking off the outer leaves (not the inner ones) actually encourages it to grow more, just like pruning roses or other plants makes them double in size. If you can move them to a place of shade (best done if they’re in planting boxes, rather than in the ground), they won’t go to seed before you’ve started your next crop of them.
So, all you need is a little dirt, a little space, about 2 dollars for a packet of seeds, and the mindfulness to not forget to water them when they need it.
Also, in that statement is everything you need to know about what leftism once meant and what it must mean again for it to ever matter to anyone.
Here, let’s pull apart what I just said:
A little dirt
2 dollars for a packet of seeds
Mindfulness to not forget to water
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A little dirt, a little space
What we call “leftism” has two origins. The term itself comes from the French Revolution, and it was in reference to the seating arrangement of people in national assembly meetings. That makes it a bit stupid, and I wouldn’t mind if we came up with a better term for it.
On the other hand, there are some esoteric meanings to “left” (sinister in Latin) that makes it worth keeping around for a little while longer. Being seated on the right side of a powerful figure was seen as a sign of favor. That’s why Jesus was said to be “at the right-hand side of the father:” kings, lords, and other authorities always put their most loyal people in this position.
That’s actually why those in opposition to the state in the French assemblies were seated on the left: they were considered disloyal, too critical of the way things were going. Seating them there was meant as a kind of insult, and a way of showing that their concerns mattered less than those on the right.
This isn’t as much of a digression at it might seem, because those on the right mostly had something those on the left mostly didn’t: land. The majority of the French nobility and the clergy (who also possessed land through the Church) were lords of land (landlords), just as in England. Having land meant not just having wealth, but also the power to determine whether or not those without land would live or die.
While you rarely hear this acknowledged by what passes for the left in the US and the UK now, land is how humans live at all. It’s how we eat, it’s how we shelter ourselves, and how everything else we need to survive comes about. Without land, there is no food, no materials for housing, no wood for cooking and warmth, and no water for drinking.
Land is the very ground of our being, and most of us have none of it.
Sure, a few of us might “own” a small piece of land, as my husband does. He came about it by the most common means anyone outside of the capitalist class did in centuries past. He was born in this house on a small piece of land, as was his mother and her mother and even further back. Almost two centuries ago, a peasant family managed to secure a tiny piece of a feudal estate as the local lord began to sell off his holdings, and their descendants clung to this patch of hard clay as if —and because — their lives depended upon it.
Call that “luck” if you need, or fortune. Don’t call it privilege, though, because this is also how most people throughout the world related to land before capitalism. You built a home in a place, created space for yourself, grew food and raised animals and had families and never once did you ever think of treating that land as a commodity to be sold for a profit.
That idea, land as commodity, is what actually caused the birth of capitalism, and it’s why most people are renting shitty tiny apartments in cities and buying packages of wilted salads at grocery stores.
Without land, you cannot grow your own food. Also, without land, you cannot build a home. Also, without land, you have absolutely no choice whatsoever except to sell your time and labor to someone else in exchange for money. You can then use that money to buy food, and pay rent, and to heat your apartment, but at every step you’ll always be giving your money away to others to do things your ancestors just a couple of generations back did for themselves.
Yeah, sure: we’re told it’s all better this way. Who really wants to grow their own food, or build their own home, or chop their own wood, when we can all scroll mindlessly through social media feeds watching people doing those things instead?
A packet of seeds
While it’s possible that some of my more hardcore gardening audience shook their head sadly when I wrote that I paid money for seeds, I imagine for those of you who’ve never gardened, that price seemed pretty good. So, let’s clear something up about plants and seeds first, just so I don’t get comments asking me why I’m paying so much.
Seeds literally grow on plants, and they’re free.
At the end of the growing cycle of any plant, it focuses its efforts on creating seeds rather than leaves or branches. In fact, it’s usually these seeds, or the parts of the plant that contain them, that we eat. Fruits and vegetables are the fleshy matter that the plant grows to help the seeds propagate. That’s not always the part we eat, though: for other foods (like salads, root vegetables, and herbs), we favor the leaves or the root of the plant, and we eat these usually before the plant has produced seeds.
If you’ve got enough space to grow plants in, you only ever need to obtain the seeds for a plant once. Take for example the cilantro/coriander I grew this year. Before it produces seeds, the leaves are really abundant, and you can keep cutting them off until it gets too warm outside. At that point, the leaves are thinner and much stronger, practically unusable for salsas or other things. But, if you let the plant live past that point, it explodes in white flowers swarming with butterflies and bees, and then makes scores of seeds before dying.
The cilantro I planted this spring came from all the seeds I collected last year. Around late June, those all went to seed, and now I have a pound (yes, a pound) of coriander seeds, much more than I can ever use for my fall planting.
I don’t know anyone in this village who loves cilantro as much as I do, but if I decided to dedicate myself to it, I could easily provide all the cilantro and coriander everyone in this village could ever want from a very small garden plot in my backyard. I could be the crazy cilantro dude, biking from house to house with a little red wagon full of cilantro leaves and jars of coriander seeds, and probably still have a lot left over.
That’s “surplus production,” in Marxist terms. It’s usually made out to be some abstract and confusing concept, but it’s really as simple as just growing more cilantro (or any other plant) than you can possibly use yourself. Nature is a crazy, wild, hyper-abundant force, and when humans relate with it in a conscious way, there’s always a recurring surplus that we cannot ever fully consume.
Of course, we need a lot more than cilantro, but we humans live in community with each other for a reason. We can trade our own surpluses for the surpluses of others, and if we’re all mindful enough about what’s needed, no one ever needs to go without what they need to survive.
That was a core part of what we used to know as leftism, long before it came to mean cancelling people and sabotaging each other. Surplus — or let’s just call it abundance — is best shared out and exchanged with others in a conscious way, without feudal lords, corporate managers, financial speculators, and technocratic administrators siphoning it off or making laws about what you’re allowed to do with it.
Mindfulness not to forget to water
I have a friend who I really think is under some awful karmic curse. She’s a brilliant artist, and extremely witty, and she’s created multiple designs which soon become insanely popular the moment someone else copies it.
This has happened to her more times than I can count. Several large corporations have picked up her designs without any credit whatsoever, as have quite unscrupulous artisans who make a killing on her ideas. Then again, it might not really be a curse, but rather her belief that brilliant ideas belong to humanity, rather than just one person.
Also, she’s always been very bad at taking care of houseplants until quite recently. It was a joke between us quite often: no matter what the plant was, no matter how much she adored it, and no matter how dearly she wanted to see it thrive, it was doomed to die. That, though, is how she came up with and started making ceramic pots etched with a smiling flower and the words, “remember to water me, please.”
When you’ve gardened for a long time, you fall into a rhythm and a connection with the plants you tend that is remarkably like what parents feel for their children. While I’ve my own ideas about what such connections are and how they are formed, we don’t really need to get too metaphysical about it. Let’s just say that things we care for (plants, kids, pets) become part of our consciousness, meaning we include them in our thoughts, considerations, and planning.
Herbs and salads often tend to die very quickly when they dry out, or “bolt” (go to seed) very fast when in too much heat. However, they also need at least some degree of sunlight and warmth to thrive, and too much watering can make it hard to keep away slugs and snails. So, you need mindful attention to their placement, and to their watering, and also to their cycles of growth and the cycles of the seasons in order for them to thrive best.
Such a mindfulness can sound a bit overwhelming if you’ve never gardened, but it’s the same kind of internal sense and skill that you develop doing things like riding a bike. If you’ve never ridden a bike, all the subtle skills can sound rather daunting: balancing your body with core muscles while propelling yourself forward with a rhythm that keeps momentum enough that you don’t fall over sideways, all the while making sure you are looking at the path in front of you, steering, and avoiding cars and other potential dangers.
Of course, once you learn to do it, it’s all “second nature,” and doesn’t seem strange in the slightest.
Relationship to plants is no different. I know when my salads will need to be watered, and when I’ll need to move them from one part of the balcony to another, and when it’s time to harvest more leaves or when I shouldn’t. This all comes with time and embodied relation to the plants, as well as fucking up sometimes and learning from those mistakes.
This requires mindfulness not just for the plants, but also a self-awareness we don’t normally practice anymore. My goal at the beginning of this year was to not need to buy any salad greens at a grocery store until first frost (sometime in October here). In order to do this, though, I needed to know not just how to grow them, but also how much I’d need to grow. So, I needed to know how much salad I actually ate, and how much more I wanted to eat, and plan out my plantings this year for that.
One of the most powerful leftist concepts is that of “alienation,” which basically states that, within capitalism, we have become alienated from ourselves, each other, and from nature. Everything becomes an external object to us, an abstraction, and we have increasing difficulty seeing how anything relates to anything else anymore. Wilted grocery store salad greens in a bag are a perfect example of this alienation. Leaves become a product to buy and consume, rather than an endlessly magical thing of wonder that overflows from the soil underfoot. In place of that magic, they become “mystified,” meaning that the natural processes (including human labor) involved in their growth and harvesting become so abstract and so obscured that they become a mystery to us.
When capitalism began, it first alienated humans from land. The enclosures and all the other displacements forced people into the cities where they could no longer survive except by selling their labor in exchange for a wage. That process also alienated humans from their bodies, disciplining them into acting more like machines than organic beings, waking up to alarms rather than when they’d slept enough.
It’s in that second process that humans became alienated from what they are capable of and from their relationship to the rest of the world. We became workers competing for jobs, trying to conquer nature, rather than humans in community with each other and with the natural world. Food became products to buy and sell, rather than something that literally grows all around us, and we not only forgot but also came to disdain the kinds of mindfulness our ancestors lived by.
The Garden Is Where We Start
To read the current discourse on social media, especially coming from Americans, you’d think that the primary enemy of any kind of leftist organizing is either a rising fascist threat hiding around every corner or the fact that X identity group won’t acknowledge how it’s oppressing Y identity group by merely breathing. Unfortunately, it seems the few not caught in either of these two ridiculous narratives are currently accusing each other of not sufficiently supporting Ukraine, family abolition, vertical farms, lab-grown meat, children’s liberation, or the killing of abusers.
Honestly, this is really fucking tragic. There’s been nothing even approximating any kind of leftist force in the United States for decades. What passes for leftism now is mostly just narcissists masturbating to sci-fi fanfic, imagining a glorious future where we’re liberated from the dirt and the bodies that compose us.
The garden is where we have to start. I don’t just mean gardens, of course, but also all the material conditions that make what gardens mean impossible for most. More and more people are being shoveled into concrete wastelands, without space to even “touch grass,” let alone grow a little bit of food. The buildings in which they live are owned by landlords who have more power and more wealth than the beheaded landed nobles during the French Revolution could possibly have dreamed of, while parks, sidewalks, underpasses, and alleyways fill up with the shoddy tents of a swollen underclass of landless peasants.
The dwellers in those cramped rental-boxes called apartments don’t even have the time to garden, let alone the space for it. All their “surplus labor” is being sold to others, in return for stagnant wages they trade for the privilege not to sleep on the streets. What remains of that compensation goes to buy bags of wilted lettuces, vegetables empty of flavor, and “foods” produced in factories they’d be terrified to ever see.
What passes for “community” between them is even more shallow and tragic, a sense of false connection across digital circuits to people they’ll never meet and to culture they can never really experience, only consume. In lieu of connection to each other, we get virtual placeholders and meaningless identity categories upon which to hang the last shreds of our human desiring.
All the while, what passes for a “left” in the United States argues for even more alienation, more technological abstraction, and more dissolution of what makes us humans. Especially maddening are calls to “abolish the family” and to increase urbanization, or replacing dirt-grown plants with vertical farms and human-tended animals with vat-grown meat — as if the capitalists weren’t already destroying our relations to each other and the earth fast enough.
None of this is leftism in any real sense of the term. In fact, if we remember that it was those on the right which were seen as most loyal to the current political order, it’s not a stretch to wonder if the people arguing for such things are just hoping to show how much more they deserve a better seat.
I’ll have none of that, thanks, and I doubt anyone else except the capitalists will ever take those visions seriously. For the rest of us, we need a leftism of the garden, and what it teaches, and what it makes of us. Such a leftism predates leftism itself, as it’s how humans have always lived and related to each other. It’s also a leftism that probably sounds pretty good to most who think they’re currently on the right, at least the ones not caught up in morality crusades.
That’s how it should be, and anyway how a garden works. Gardening is only a political act now because of all the political acts and regimes that have made it impossible for many. In fact, though, gardening is ultimately anti-political: being able to feed yourself, your friends, and your neighbors is exactly what the political order is hoping you won’t remember you can do. It’s also hoping you won’t question why so few have access to land to garden, or the time to do so, or the mindfulness that comes from such relationality.
And that’s why we need to start there, physically first, then symbolically after. Learn how to grow something, and then learn how to grow more than you need. Share your surplus, save your seeds, and at every step of the way, ask why this has all been made so hard for us now.
Then, figure out how to make it less difficult, not just for yourself but for everyone else. How do we get ourselves and others enough space to live, enough access to land, enough control over our surpluses, and enough connection to each other and the earth that our neo-feudal lords can no longer stop us?
And also, in the meantime, stop by in about of month. I’m gonna have more cilantro than I’ll ever be able to use.