Pastoralists as avant-garde

–Let’s play with the notion that pastoralist practices contribute to coping with or managing better elsewhere. (This isn’t a stretch, when modern nomadism resonates with pastoralist practices, e.g.: “mobile work,” “coworking,” “virtual collaborations,” “Do It Yourself (DIY),” and “remote work.”)

“Play” being the operative word, think of pastoralists as an avant-garde for what sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, has called liquid modernities. “Avant-garde”?

The avant-garde is no more only French than intelligentsia only Russian. As in the photo from the early 20th century’s Café Voltaire?

That kind of looks like Basotho shepherds, right?

Ok, ok, let’s not be silly. . .

But the rationale for the avant-garde is to transgress society’s orthodoxies. How else to describe the herders Garrett Hardin famously blamed for the Tragedy of the Commons: “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit. . .Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush. . .” Transgressive herders indeed, at least from one outside gaze.

–My starting point—and one I ask you to take seriously—is a feature of the avant-garde less commented upon, but central to its role in a wider society. Says a French artist, “It is the ontology of avant-gardes to fail in order for them to reinvent themselves.”

In this view, avant-gardes fail enough not to succeed, but succeed enough not to disappear. If so, pastoralists are a “vulnerable” and “marginalized” group, but not just because they are poor(er).

Reinventing themselves is something avant-gardes do all the time and better than others. It’s their métier. Just as avant-gardes are ahead of their time, so too have pastoralist behaviors been in advance of the two dominant development narratives for them, the older tragedy of the commons (ToC) and the later narrative about common property resource (CPR) management. (Indeed, any preoccupation with the CPR and earlier ToC imaginaries should be treated as an indicator of a limited ability to keep up with pastoralists.)

Being ahead of the institutional narratives has for pastoralists both the downsides and upsides of avant-gardes:

  • Downside: Really-existing pastoralist behavior—like that of any avant-garde—has never stopped the drive of normal professionalism (in our case, economics and ecology) to focus on reduced-form narratives like the ToC and CPR.
  • Upside: Knowledge of and, in some cases, the actual behavior of avant-gardes are diffusing into the wider society, albeit lagged and unevenly. I’m biased on this matter, but note just how out-of-date and old-fashioned are the dirigiste terms of “livestock, land and labor,” when read against pastoralist development “as real-time processes and practices in the name of increasing requisite variety…”

–So what? As with avant-gardes, the pastoralists’ labyrinth for action—in a nod to Bruno Latour—isn’t global as much as terrestrial, that complex zone to be articulated above, below and around them.

Related reading

E. Roe (2020). A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure, STEPS Working Paper 113, STEPS Centre: Brighton, UK (available online at

Blog entries for: “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms (longer read),” “Keeping up with pastoralists: A case for ‘Multiplatform Pastoralism’ (longer read)”

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