Sunday, November 28, 2004

More on creeping agrarianism

I've been reading quite a bit around this topic. I thought I should make a few things clear as I start in on some of the issues and thinkers connected with it.

First, I, like most thoughtful people I know, agree with Wendell Berry and the agrarianists in their negative evaluation of contemporary culture: there is something empty in it, it does lack for something very needful. But, I also know that part of this feeling is part of life--the ancient Greeks moaned about the same sort of hollowness in life that we do.

I say part because I think that contemporary culture has exacerbated this basic condition of life.

I am happy that Wendell Berry has expressed his discontent with contemporary culture and that his negative analysis of our lives has given focus to so many others who feel discontent.

I also agree with some of the agrarianists in their notion that technology is not neutral. If you think about it, the proposition that technology might be neutral is absurd--if it doesn't have a significant impact on the way we live, why invest so much in it?

BUT, I don't think that technology is such a great villain in the story of human kind, either.

I am surprised also by how much of the agrarianist agenda seems to come out of the diet-obsessed neuroticism we so often see amongst the health-food-store set. This line of "thinking" is not a solution to our cultural problems, it is one of its more depressing and sad symptoms: people with critical perspectives and (generally) significant educational and economic resources turned into obsessors over trivia that they imbue with issues of purity, defilement, and apocalyptic accountability.

Farmer, writer and technophobe Wendell Berry could not be better suited to become the patron saint of this movement: intimately engaged in the production of food, engaged in a livelihood many Americans are brought up to reflexively revere, a noble smallholder who plows his fields behind a team of horses; browned and callused, yet sensitive and profound; Our new-age Cinncinnatus.

Unfortunately, though, Berry is essentially a simple soul and a simple thinker caught up in a world where simple answers are often disastrously wrong, or even deeply pernicious.

As for the simplicity end of things, witness his exchange with Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin. (Please forgive my telling the whole of this long story, but we will eventually come around to the point!)

Lewontin had written a piece in the New York Review of Books where he reviewed a number of books on the controversy surrounding genomic foods. Lewontin is a Marxist and is generally in sympathy with democratic movements and with people's power to decide what risks they'd like to take. So while Lewontin is very critical of the abuse of science and scare-mongering he sees in many GMO opponents, he is equally critical of the elisions and obfuscations of the interested parties who'd like to have us growing and eating as much genetically modified food as possible.

But, in the course of his review one of Berry's friends, the Indian physicist and activist Vandana Shiva, comes in for something of a drubbing. Berry ran to the defense of Shiva in a cover article of the Progressive magazine, "The Prejudice Against Country People." Lewontin was used as the first and most prominent example of said prejudice.

Lewontin responded with a letter to the same publication.

One passage in Lewontin's original piece became the center of the exchange:

Now we understand the Turning Point Project. They're a bunch of Luddites. Right century, but wrong movement. The followers of the unseen King Ludd and Captain Swing from 1811 to 1830 were industrial and rural laborers thrown out of work or trying to live on poverty wages, who destroyed
knitting and threshing machines that had displaced their labor. Their objection to technology was not ideological but pragmatic. If we want to find the nineteenth-century equivalent of the sources of Turning Point consciousness, we must find it in the movement that began with Blake and
ended with Rossetti, Ruskin, and the pre-Raphaelites, in the call to arms against the dark Satanic Mills:

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

That nineteenth-century discontent was the reaction of a middle class repelled by the spiritual and physical ugliness created by a surging industrial capitalism to which they sensed no attachment. One might think that because the rise of industrial capitalism occurred so long ago and the culture it created has become so much the basis of European and American life, any truly popular new romantic movement against it would be inconceivable. But what was then a struggle against the rise of its dominance is now a struggle against its last consolidation in spheres of life that seemed set apart.

Berry immediately jumped on the first two sentences of this passage, and castigated Lewontin for his trite response to the challenge of the anti-technologists.

But a bit of attention the passage (and to what follows) quickly tells us that this is far from being a trite and uncomplex response to the Turning Point Project and their ilk. Lewontin tries to spell this out for Berry in his letter of response to the Progressive:

Berry's passions have interfered with his ability to read plain English. I did not speak of Vandana Shiva's allies as Luddites, but, rather, made a special point of the incorrectness of such a claim. I wrote that the Luddites were "industrial and rural laborers thrown out of work or trying to live on poverty wages, who destroyed knitting and threshing machines that had displaced their labor." In contrast, I pointed out that the correct nineteenth century equivalent of the Shivaites was the middle class educated urban romantic movement of Blake and Rossetti, which called for the return to an idyllic rural life that never, in fact, existed. Most people engaged in English agriculture in the nineteenth century and before were, in fact, hired laborers whose chronic poverty and misery were the root of the struggles over the Poor Law, just as in Berry's grandfather's day, half of Southern farmers were landless tenants and sharecroppers.

In other words, the first two sentences of the passage are meant to be ironic, the rest is intended to correct the trite and mistaken comparison to the Luddites. The true parallel, as Lewontin sees it, is to the nineteenth-century Romantics. (Lewontin is no doubt thinking about his Raymond Williams at this point--Culture and Society is a relatively sympathetic portrait of Romantic anti-modernism, and The Country and the City deals quite directly with the fantasies and realities surrounding life in the country).

Berry didn’t get the irony the first time. And even after Lewontin spells out everything for him, Berry responds by simply quoting the first two sentences again. Irony and voice, apparently, being literary technologies that Berry as reader has completely forsaken!

And Lewontin is no stranger to agricultural issues either, as he points out. He's written two serious considerations of the plight of the farmer in industrial modernity in the Monthly Review: "Technology, Research, and the Penetration of Capital: The Case of U.S. Agriculture" (July/August 1986, with J. P. Berlan) and "The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture" (July/August 1998).

Reading over this exchange, one point is driven home: you'd be far better off reading and thinking about Lewontin than Berry, unless you're in the market for Lukewarm Comfort Farm.

Personally, I think Lewontin is on the right track with the nineteenth-centruy romantics, but I think the best parallel to today's agrarians can be found a bit later, after Romanticism has gone to seed. We ought to be looking at Boyle's Road to Wellville.

More later . . .


Monday, November 22, 2004

Creeping agrarianism

Prefatory note: We'll have to wait a little while longer for my promised "Political Theater" piece--the election and some other stuff having taken away my research time for a little while. But here's something else I've been thinking about of late.

Lately on the local community radio station, I heard a song by John McCutcheon called "It's the Economy Stupid," part of an album of polemical tunes he's written about Clinton and Bush-era political and social issues. Other titles include "Hail to the Chief" which cleverly weaves together a bunch of Bush malapropisms and "I'm Packing," which spoofs concealed weapons carriers.

All fairly typical of your folk lefty.

But "It's the Economy Stupid" really struck a chord with me, and not a receptive one. This in spite of the fact that I'm generally in agreement with McCutcheon is his other left-of-center sentiments, from fear of yokels with concealed handguns to contempt for George Bush's intellectual capacity.

But "Economy" resonates loudly with an agrarian populism I'd come to hope the left had left behind, or had left to the nutters on the right. But, surprisingly enough to me, a new sentimentalist, crypto-nativist, populist agrarianism has taken hold on the left, and McCutcheon's lyrics are the most direct expression of it I've heard, so I will quote them here in their entirety:
It's the Economy, Stupid (2001)
words and music by John McCutcheon
Written after reading Wendell Berry's fabulous novel, Jayber Crow.

It's the economy, stupid
A victory sign
A mantra
An explanation
A reminder
A warning
An omen
An onus
A threat
It's the economy, stupid

Farmers' wives bring eggs
Whole milk
Fresh butter
To the local market
To the store
Come in with groceries
And leave with groceries and money

Small farmers raise crops
For local markets
Up at dawn
Home at dusk
More in fallow
Than under the plow
Dark loam
Rich with earthworms
Defying erosion
Anchoring forest borders
Home for
Now virginity is no longer fashionable
Even in our forests
We will harvest another crop
Of walnut
Cherry, oak
If we only live
Another hundred years.
Man was the last piece
Of creation
And has been playing catch up
Ever since.

Farming is a balance
Of muscle
And conservation
Becomes the muscle now
Allowing us to work
Into the night.
We plant our debts
Fencerow to fencerow
Every bitter dram
Of expert advice
'drunk with dreams
of fortune

We grow
What we cannot use
What we used to raise
What we used to save
What we used to treasure
What we used to revere
What we used to love
It's the economy, stupid

I am not a nostalgist
I am a most pragmatic man
I look at what naturally occurs
In the living world--
And see diversity
Not specialization.
I look at
Hometown banks
Hardware stores
Where your name
Is your credit
And decisions are rendered
By people who know you
Where you are more than
The five banks
And the four airlines
And the three newspaper chains
And the two big box stores
And the one-and-a-half political parties
And the one retort:
It's the economy stupid

And the standards
That demand that
Every teacher teaches
Every student
Exactly the same thing
And, like these students
I have to ask 'why?'
It's the economy, stupid

Now those educated
Appraised students
Ride their buses
From their consolidated schools
Back to their small towns and farms
And cannot wait
To drive their cars away
On that highway of diamonds
Into the consolidated cities
Where they look back
In shame
And wonder
Between what they know
And what they've been sold
It's the economy, stupid

The economy that looks
For the maximum return
For the quick turnaround
For the short term gain
For the unearned income
For the Big Lotto
It's the economy, stupid

And the economy
Is impatient
It has a short attention span
It is easily bored
It is hungry
It is late for its next appointment
It puts you on hold
It does not return your call
It's the economy, stupid

The economy
Has you working two jobs
It is mandatory overtime
It is expensive sneakers
Made by sweating children
It is cheap food
Picked by landless hands
It is good paying jobs
Disappearing from American towns
And reappearing
It is your closed up main street
And it is your boarded up mill
And it is your condo-minimized factory
And it is your cookie cutter mall
And it is not accountable
It is not America
It's the economy, stupid

The economy now has no borders
Or horizons
Or faces
Or hands
The economy has only one rule:

And the economy lies.
The economy tells us it is about Freedom.
The economy is about Dependence.
Not on land
Or animals
Or weather
Or neighbors
On machinery
And fuel
And credit.
Most farmers
Have borrowed their way
Right out of farming.
No government loan
No government program
Will change
That cycle.
Because the government
Is powerless now, see:
It's the economy, stupid

And the government is the economy's
Biggest cheerleader.
It plays by the same rules:
The quick fix
The stronger army
The bigger bomb
The dependence on machinery
To do work
That can only effectively be done
By humans.
It consolidates
When diversity is required.

It's about economy
It's about small towns with
And baseball teams
A general store
Family cemeteries
A schoolhouse
A lumberyard
A radio station
A newspaper
A roadhouse
A funeral home
A filling station
Open space
Open opportunity
Open eyes
Open hearts
It's about economy

Craigston, Carriacou, Grenada February 2001

©2001 John McCutcheon/Appalsongs (ASCAP)

Keep in mind, I live in Northern Michigan, and though the town where I live is fairly moderate, much of surrounding area is rural. There are few minorities or foreigners here. To me, a lot of this sort of song really seems to me to appeal directly to the racism and xenophobia which are very strong ideological undercurrents in this area, even on the left.

And I am not doing the white guilt thing here--finding reason for the whites to castigate themselves everywhere--I am merely observing that popular movements here like the effort to shut down the Perrier water plant in Macosta, Michigan make pretty freely appeal to nativism and xenophobia to get people excited--the company is FRENCH! (or, somewhat less dramatically, Swiss) or its a MULTINATIONAL! (code word for "foreign") and the scandal is that "our" water might be taken so that foreigner can profit by it and some brown-skinned people somewhere may get to drink it.

Keep our water here!

If this sounds a lot like the sort of agrarian nativism Richard Hofstadter wrote about in his works on American populism and nativist paranoia, well it should.
The American left is slowly but surely leaving behind its commitment to things like science, social progress and urbanity and embracing irrationalism, nostalgia and, rather more surreptitiously, the sort of "blood and soil" ideology that gave a bad name to this line of thinking in the first place.

The time to head this off is now. The way to do it is by facing up to some hard truths: we are stuck with modernity; We are stuck with the rest of the world; We are stuck with negotiation, compromise and politics no matter how righteous we think we are; We are stuck with uncertainty, complexity and complication.

More on this topic later.