Reading Andrew Kelly’s paper through a permaculture lens

ON THE RECOMMENDATION of people in the Evidence-Based Permaculture facebook group I read through Anthony Kelly’s Dealing with Far-Right Interventions in Left-Wing and Progressive Movements. It is not a long read. I read his paper to see if it could shed any light on recent allegations of such interventions in the social movement around permaculture in Australia. Are they real or are do they read too much into the actions of some permaculture influencers active in the anti-vaxx/anti-government Covid mandate/anti whatever else movement? Does Kelly even mention permaculture in his paper?

He does. Kelly names permaculture as one of the social movements within which far-right “anti-lockdown/anti-vaxx” activists are attempting to mobilise people to build support for their politics and, where possible, to recruit them — his “attempted to mobilise within permaculture networks, amongst health workers, and within social justice campaigns.” They are doing this physically through rallies and through engaging in netwar — the use of online digital communications to sow distrust in social institutions and social democracy and present their preferred model of reality—where they actually have one, which is not all that often.

I came to Kelly’s paper after reading David Holmgren’s blog in which he says he and those attending the rallies believe that, through their presence, they can influence people attending the rallies. Am I reading too much into what David writes? I don’t think so. So, what are their chances of influencing people outside the permaculture networks who participate in rallies organised by the far-right? Zilch. Permaculture has nothing like the organising capacity, momentum or reach of the far-right. Nor does any permaculture entity have a strategy to recruit and retain.

Conventionally viewed as a good thing, the social and political diversity within the permaculture movement militates against its move to influence and recruit at the rallies and through social media. We see this in the backlash against a permaculture presence at the rallies and in criticism of the ideas David expresses in his blog. Just as vaccination provides an antidote to disease, this backlash is seen as permaculture’s immune response to ideas that contravene its ethic of care of people.

The sad case of permaculture’s media bashing

Kelly’s paper reminds me of how media-bashing is a far-right tactic to destroy trust in the social institutions of democratic societies, and it is one that leading figures in permaculture indulge in. It is parasitical because those figures, and permaculture in general, have benefited greatly from favourable mainstream media reporting. They criticise and claim censorship of their point of view on social platforms upon which they rely to propagate their message. Permaculture owes a debt to mainstream media, particularly the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) for promoting it through the 1990s and beyond. Some long-standing permaculture practitioners work in those same media organisations that the design system’s media bashers now attack. Is this a case of short memories or of a lack of a shared historical timeline within the permaculture movement?

I am not talking about media criticism, which many journalists are good at, but attempts to discredit the media as an institution in regard to its ‘fourth estate’ role in democratic societies. These are social watchdog roles, the first three traditionally performed by the courts, the legislature and the church. The media was added as it gained influence. The roles are mutually watchful and were seen as social safeguards. Sure, there has been a fair element of media failure in enacting its Fourth Estate role, however to discount the media in its entirety would be like completely discounting permaculture for its own failures, such as the attempt to privatise by trademarking key terms in common use in the movement and for its failure to establish its own political party, the Permaculture Peoples’ Party, over 20 years ago.

It is no accident that Russia’s active measures program through its St Petersburg troll factory and other entities also has the same goal of discrediting social institutions such as the media, government and scientific authority. It would be far-fetched fantasy to say that permaculture people are intentionally working with the Russians or far-right organisations that distribute those same messages. More likely is that the messages resonate with long-running social social critiques circulating within the social movement around permaculture, messages that have been latched on to and amplified by those permaculture practitioners engaging in netwar. The Russians used to call people who spread their messages, and who usually did not know they were doing so, ‘useful idiots’.

Kelly puts it this way: “Anti-lockdown/anti-vax groups have been adopting tactics from the United States far-right, such as attacking ‘mainstream’ journalists and media outlets.” Harrassing media teams was also evident during the Ottawa siege and the Canadian bridge blockade of February 2022. It is another tactic adopted from Trump’s infowar armoury.

It is unfortunate to see permaculture people engage in this. I don’t mean the thoughtlessly reactive and false comments we see on permaculture’s social media such as ‘you won’t see this in the media’ (when you often do), but criticism designed to denigrate trusted media institutions such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and The Guardian. It is disconcerting to see a few in permaculture reposting links to News Ltd stories and giving credibility to allegations of a growing rightwing influence in the design system.

Vying for influence in the movement

Kelly writes of the far-right “latching onto a range of other social justice or progressive causes and campaigns, bringing their far-right, sovereign-citizen or conspiratorial influences along with them”, and that “outward displays of shared allegiance hide a political program that opposes progressive values and human rights.”

We saw the reality of this with the demonstrations at Old Parliament House in which the front doors were set on fire on two occasions. The ‘sovereign citizens’ were part of a push to springboard off the Aboriginal rights movement — there were Aboriginal people among them — that has a long-running camp nearby, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. It disowned their actions.

If permaculture is considered to be an entity fitting Kelly’s “progressive causes and campaigns”, is it at risk in a rightwing influence-and-capture operation? As an entire entity it is not because of the social and political diversity within it, however is could be in-part. We see this in social media and Instagram posts that, deliberately or in ignorance, repost far-right memes including disinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic.

Permaculture is put at risk because its politics is vague and unarticulated. Political discussion has been discouraged in the social movement around permaculture, probably a legacy of Bill Mollison’s critique of it as conventionally practiced through the party system. On some permaculture social media, participants have actively opposed the raising of political questions, often asking ‘what does this have to do wth permaculture?’. Once, discussion of such topics took place. Does this say something about the people now being attracted to the design system?

Traditionally, permaculture’s politics has been socially and economically progressive, even moderately left-leaning in the sense that the Australian Greens’ social democratic position to the left of the Australian Labor Party can be considered leftist. Looking back to its origin, permaculture imbibed a democratic leftist ambience thanks to the New Left-influenced politics of the counterculture of the 1970s from which some of its early adherents came. I think it accurate to say that permaculture’s politics have been liberal democratic—socially liberal, not economically liberal—social democracy, perhaps the only political system that permaculture could have emerged from thanks to its tradition of freedom of speech, thought and publishing.

Kelly writes of the movement against Covid mandates. He says that as the “disparate movement has grown it has provided a huge platform for far-right, libertarian, sovereign-citizen ideas and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which have mapped quite neatly onto COVID fears and anti-vaccination sentiments.”

The evidence for this has been before our eyes in the rallies against vaxx, lockdowns, the Victoria government‘s mandates and the Canberra convoy. But, do we see Kelly’s political trends in permaculture? No and yes. Anti-Semitism appears to be absent. Likewise, sovereign citizens seem to be absent or concealed.

Libertarians? This is a troubled classification as, like capitalism and socialism, libertarianism comes in a variety of flavours. At one end are libertarians who espouse minimal government and letting business and people do what they want to do without regard for environmental or social impact and without regulation. The form is popular in the USA and is known as right-libertarianism. At the other end are the left-libertarians whose position is articulated by the late political theorist, Murray Bookchin, who is associated with the development of social ecology. They want social libertarianism, individual freedom, but within the context of the collective good. They see a role for a different form of government that Bookchin articulated as municipal libertarianism, an adaption of grassroots democracy combined with federalism.

The presence of libertarian thought in permaculture became clear as the design system evolved. The focus on the individual (I acknowledge that many in permaculture focus on the community) and the popularity of homesteading well-fit the right-libertarian, go-it-alone, rugged individualism mindset. Homesteading traditionally is an inherently conservative way of life. We see its popularity in permaculture in the focus on rural landuse design in permaculture design courses and in permaculture literature. Although most permaculture practitioners live in cities and towns, and although their access to home ownership and career is bound to the urban environment, homesteading and its individualist ideology holds both attraction and influence despite the reality that the great majority will never engage in it. Many see their modest home food gardens as scaled-down versions of it even though their productivity would often fail to nutritionally support a family.

As for Kelly’s ”COVID fears and anti-vaccination sentiments”, we see these have found a home among some in Australia’s permaculture milieu, and not only amid newcomers. They are evident in the comments of some longer-term practitioners, a small number of whom post vaxx disinformation, News Ltd items and support for the United Australia Party on their social media. This gives credence to Kelly’s assertion that far-right tactics, what he calls their “infiltrate and disrupt strategy”, is working, but only to a limited extent in the permaculture movement. Recruitment of permaculture practitioners appears to be low despite the volume of anti-vaxx/anti-government sentient evident in the movement.

The sentiment in permaculture appears to be predominately pro-vaxx and critically supportive of government initiatives against the virus. This is evidenced by the reaction to David Holmgren’s blogs in which he explains his reasons for being a vaxx-dodger, supporting supposedly alternative cures and avoiding paying tax.

Permaculture operates within a changing political landscape

Something changed in permaculture with the coming of the virus. The change sprung from an existing but diffuse critical attitude to government and social institutions, from the search for alternative forms of sustainable agriculture such as Biodynamics and from the popularity of folk cures that has been evident in the movement for some time.

This attitudinal/political change opened a niche that grew to include a substantial but far from complete distrust of mainstream medicine, of the media (but not permaculture’s media which seldom published anything controversial, and in contradiction to the importance of mainstream media’s role in spreading the permaculture message), political institutions and lifestyle that opened a pathway that for some led to anti-vaxx , anti-science, alternative Covid-medicine and associated attitudes. Where did it come from? Numerous sources, so I’ll revert to my own 36 years involvement in permaculture to suggest three sources:

  • Bill Mollison’s critical, reasoned and iconoclastic attitude to our society
  • David Holmgren’s critique of society, which I also agree with much of, but not necessarily with some of David’s attitudes of conclusions
  • in its formative years, the legacy of the critiques levelled by the counterculture, or the alternative subculture of the seventies, through which some early permaculture practitioners travelled.

So, this is where we as a social movement find ourselves today. As Kelly writes: “We operate within a new and changing landscape. In 2022 we have an exhausted left, and a resurgent and highly mobilised right. Most movement groups are not used to, or comfortable with this form of ‘horizontal’ conflict, which requires counteracting not institutional power, but opposing activists.”

He is right about horizontal conflict. Permaculture is far from comfortable with it. An example was the taking down of a lengthy thread on the Retrosuburbia facebook about leading permaculture practitioners at the Melbourne anti-vaxx, anti-mandates rally, only to reinstate it when the admins realised that people wanted to discuss it to make sense of what was happening. We see it too in responses to comments that question something about permaculture and are described as divisive. Is there is division it was already there. Deleting conversations is a characteristic of echo chambers and cults, however in his 2020 book, The Politics of Permaculture, academic Terry Leahy says that while permaculture has some of the characteristic of a cult it lacks them all.

As well as some Australian permaculture influencers we also see a separation with others, such as economics commentators Nicole Foss and Charles Eisenstein, both of whom took an anti-vaxx/anti-mandates position and both of whom have influenced permaculture thinking. David and Nicole did a speaking tour of Australian states some years ago.

As a social movement we find ourselves divided over things that have greater importance than themselves and the design system itself. Things like the scientific process, public health, democracy and truth. In this horizontal conflict, people we regarded as colleagues, people we still regard as such, now stand on opposite sides of an intellectual and political barrier.

Kelly’s paper stands as both a warning and as a signifier of how once-unitary movements like permaculture lack the resiliency to withstand the social forces now acting on them.

Dealing with Far-Right Interventions in Left-Wing and Progressive Movements; 2022, Anthony Kelly; The Commons Social Change Library.

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Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.

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