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Agrarianism vs. The Life Well-Lived

In America, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, News and Current Events, Politics on January 16, 2012 at 12:05 am

James Banks is a doctoral student studying Renaissance and Restoration English literature at the University of Rochester. He also contributes to the American Interest Online. He has been a Fellow with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Honors Program; in addition to The Literary Lawyer, he has written for the Intercollegiate Review, First Principles and The Heritage Foundation’s blog The Foundry. A native of Idaho’s panhandle, he lives in upstate New York and serves in the New York Army National Guard.

Agrarianism has been an organized antagonist of American capitalism for longer than Marxism has, and it provides a welcome avenue for those who reject the gospel of a bourgeoisie paradise but are averse to the cosmopolitan and authoritarian tendencies of Marxism. It has occasionally found its way into public policy, such as the Second Bush Administration’s efforts to turn all Americans into property owners (though, by that point, “the family farm” had become a suburban home with a two car garage and white picket fence). Most recently, a debate boiled up in the blogosphere over a comment made by First Things editor Joe Carter arguing that Agrarianism was essentially utopian in nature.

Front Porch Republic—which, from what I can make out, is not explicitly Agrarian but is highly sympathetic to its tenets—was quick to come back with a number of repartees. Nonetheless, these repartees (for this reader anyway) only accentuated some of the problems with the ideology that they sought to defend. Front Porch Republic’s best contribution to the debate is Mark T. Mitchell’s. Professor Mitchell is an author of considerable ability and one who—in as far as I can make out—comes pretty close to living the philosophy that he advocates. I would not question the consistency of his views, just the correctness.

In his discussion of Wendell Berry’s Agrarianism, Mitchell writes:

The agrarian is guided by gratitude. He recognizes the giftedness of creation and accepts the great and awful responsibility to steward it well. Such a recognition “calls for prudence, humility, good work, propriety of scale.”[3] In the use of the land, soil, water, and non-human creatures, the final arbiter, according to Berry, is not human will but nature itself.[4] But this is not to suggest that Berry is some sort of pantheist. Instead, “the agrarian mind is, at bottom, a religious mind.” The agrarian recognizes that the natural world is a gift, and gifts imply a giver. “The agrarian mind begins with the love of fields and ramifies in good farming, good cooking, good eating, and gratitude to God.” By contrast, the “industrial mind “begins with ingratitude, and ramifies in the destruction of farms and forests.”

I can sympathize with the desire to live close to the soil (and would purchase a farm could I afford it). The problem with the argument, though, is that it implies a fundamental distinction between the “agrarian mind” and the “industrial mind”; in truth, the difference between the two is one of degree rather than fundamental difference. Perhaps the agrarian mind “recognizes that the natural world is a gift,” but does it recognize it as such more than does the mind of the hunter/gatherer? And, if not, why should we not go further and work to incorporate elements of the hunter/gatherer’s economy into our postmodern existence?

America’s early agrarian writers did not see themselves as somehow living in harmony with nature. When visiting the writings of J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, one encounters this passage:

Is it not better to contemplate under these humble roofs the rudiments of future wealth and population than to behold the accumulated bundles of litigious papers in the office of a lawyer?  To examine how the world gradually settled, how the howling swamp is converted into a pleasing meadow, the rough ridge into a fine field; and to hear the cheerful whistling, the rural song, where there was no sound heard before, save the yell of the savage, the screech of the owl or the hissing of the snake? Here an European, fatigued with luxury, riches and pleasures, may find a sweet relaxation in a series of interesting scenes, as affecting as they are new.

Crevecoeur certainly prefers the placidity of agrarian life to the cosmopolitanism of the urban lawyer. Nonetheless, he is as enthusiastic to clear the forest for the farm as the “industrial mind” is to clear the forest for the city. It is a mistake to suggest that the agrarian life is natural. The move from the forest to the farm is, in fact, a more revolutionary manipulation of social organization than the move from the farm to the city. It is only through the division of labor provided by agriculture that the city is able to exist.

Agrarianism is larger than this one point, but other weaknesses emerge once its more fundamental premises are cut down from their theoretical moorings and forced to stand on the ground. The agrarian sees the society of the family farm as preferable to the life of bobo living in suburban paradise. Anathema are the financial institutions which distort commerce, the factories which pollute nature and the industrial farms which mass produce the food supply. At a theoretical level, I am able to sympathize, but in practice, I am confronted by the fact that the “industrial mind” produces much more than mere materialistic frivolities which we might do without.

The factory farm is perhaps hideous—images of animals thrown together, forced to breed between the narrow bars of cages, still resonate whenever I hear the term. Nonetheless, the industrialization of the agriculture industry and the genetic alteration of crops has, during the past five decades, led to unprecedented yields, offering us more food and fewer famines. Perhaps something was lost, but it was not billions of lives.

There is value in a life lived close to a particular locale, as in Agrarianism. But the problem that keeps on confounding these ideals is not with our systems of government, our institutions or our society. It is with us. The accentuate folly of the contemporary city-dwelling nomad is that he cannot imagine an ideology which could value anything above his animal urges to seek out food, shelter and sexual relations; the accentuate folly of the locally-anchored brother whom he left behind is that he cannot imagine a life apart from an ideology forged by the customs and assumptions of his home. In other words, the cosmopolitan’s flaw is shallowness, the localist’s is narrowness.

Perhaps many of us could use more time to appreciate the aesthetic value of the local: Visit your city’s farmers’ market; go to the public library book sale; take part in the coffee-shop poetry readings; maybe start a garage band. As one who fell enough in love with the rural villages of upstate New York that I moved from the Beltway to return, I know that a thing of beauty can be a joy forever (or at least as much in the 21st Century as it was in the 19th). But it is best appreciated as one element of a more complex life in which it takes a backseat to a religion which is cosmopolitan in nature and a family whose most basic human needs must be fulfilled. It should furthermore not be appreciated because it is familiar, but it should be familiar because it is appreciated. To turn the familiar into a political ideology is to dilute its worth.


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