For many years, I have encountered repeated references to Wendell Berry, the venerable farmer-sage of Kentucky: novelist, poet, essayist, philosopher and environmental activist. And I lazily assumed his writings to be in the category of things that are Good For You, but probably dull, like stodgy health food. But then I came across The Art of the Commonplace, a collection of Berry’s essays on what he calls “agrarianism”, and I found his writing electrifying. Berry has a well-thought-out, far-reaching, passionately articulated analysis of what is wrong with the prevailing political/economic/social system in America, which extends with minimal adjustments to much of the rest of the world. It’s different from the sort of political analysis typically seen at C4SS.org – not incompatible with it, but, I would say, complementary to it. I think it’s therefore fruitful to examine Berry’s political/economic/social philosophy from a freed-market anarchist (FMA) perspective, noting the substantial points of agreement, but also the areas where Berry’s agrarianism perhaps contributes something missing from FMA discourse, and vice-versa.
The Art of the Commonplace consists of essays dating from 1969 to 2002, on a range of topics including racial justice, sexual politics, the arts, religion, as well as Berry’s more central concerns: farming, land use, environmentalism, and economics. But despite the fact that many of the writings date from thirty-some years ago, all of them remain surprisingly timely. Running through them all is a single unifying premise: no society can remain healthy if it fails to care for the soil and water from which its food comes. And Berry presents compelling arguments that many superficially unrelated social ills can be traced to this central sin (yes, that’s Berry’s term for it). The problem lies in a constellation of attitudes, practices and technologies that Berry labels “industrialism”.
1. A little soil science. The starkest example of this industrialism is the practice of heavily mechanized, synthetic fertilizer- pesticide- and herbicide-based agriculture, which began in post-World War II America, and then spread to the rest of the world as “the Green Revolution”. We now know, as traditional farmers have long intuited, that healthy soil is a living thing: a complex ecosystem of growing and decaying vegetation, arthropods, nematodes, bacteria, fungi, as well as sand, silt, clay, water and air. The soil fauna and microbes constantly break down dead vegetation, making the nutrients within it available to the living plants, and storing extra nutrients in the form of humus, extremely complex carbon compounds.1 But early twentieth century agricultural science made the facile assumption that soil fertility was a matter of supplying a few chemicals, basically nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, while the soil fauna and microbes were seen only as potential pests. The agrochemical industry was born, and with heavy government support, it quickly achieved a dominant role in what is now known as conventional agriculture. Monsanto and their genetically engineered crops are merely the latest installment of this grand industrial program. Synthetic fertilizers (derived mainly from petroleum) burn through the soil fauna and humus, giving a shot of growth to the crop, but eliminating the microbes and fauna that might help plants fight off parasites and diseases, and depleting longer-term soil fertility. Next season, the farmer needs even more fertilizer and pesticide, and s/he’s locked into a vicious cycle. The soil becomes little more than a medium for delivering petro-chemical inputs to crops. But without humus to hold it together, topsoil turns to dust and is lost to wind and rain. Carbon, previously sequestered in the humus, becomes CO2, significantly contributing to climate change. Without enough vegetation to hold rainwater in place and evaporate it back into the atmosphere, desertification begins. Meanwhile, the farmer has been replaced by an agribusiness corporation. And if this corporation can no longer grow enough wheat in Kansas, it can grow some other cash crop in the not-yet-depleted soils of South America, or Africa. Farming becomes an extractive industry, like mining, using up resources that cannot easily be replaced. This is what Berry means by failing to care for the soil. We may not all grow food, but we all eat food; soil depletion therefore poses an existential threat to every one of us. We are now seeing the consequences of this depletion in steadily rising food prices.
2. Rootless in America. But the attitudes underlying industrialism have much deeper antecedents in American culture, originating in its colonialist inception. In ‘A Native Hill’, Berry relates an account from 1797, by one Rev. Jacob Young, of a party of frontiersmen constructing a road, near the site of Berry’s present-day farm in Kentucky, perhaps including some of Berry’s own ancestors:
They knew but little. They could clear ground, raise corn, and kill turkeys, deer, bears, and buffalo; and, when it became necessary, they understood the art of fighting the Indians as well as any men in the United States… That country then was unbroken forest; there was nothing but an Indian trail passing the wilderness… The company worked hard all day; in quiet, and every man obeyed the captain’s orders punctually. About sundown, the captain, after a short address, told us the night was going to be very cold, and we must make very large fires. We felled the hickory trees in great abundance; made great log heaps … so we warmed our cold victuals, ate our suppers, and spent the evening in hearing the hunters’ stories relative to the bloody scenes of the Indian war… Thus far, well; but a change began to take place. They became very rude, and raised the war-whoop. Their shrill shrieks made me tremble. They chose two captains, divided the men into two companies, and commenced fighting with the firebrands… They fought, for two or three hours, in perfect good nature; till brands became scarce… Some were severely wounded, blood began to flow freely, and they were in a fair way of commencing to fight in earnest. At this moment, the loud voice of the captain rang out above the din, ordering every man to retire to rest… We finished our road according to directions, and returned home in health and peace.
The significance of this bit of history is in its utter violence. The work of clearing the road was itself violent. And from the orderly violence of that labor, these men turned for amusement to disorderly violence. They were men whose element was violence… And let us acknowledge these were the truly influential men in the history of Kentucky, as well as in the history of most of the rest of America… ‘They knew but little’, the observant Reverend says of them, and this is the most suggestive thing he says. It is surely understandable … that these men were ignorant by the standards of formal schooling. But one immediately reflects that the American Indian, who was ignorant by the same standards, nevertheless knew how to live in the country without making violence the invariable mode of his relation to it; in fact, from the ecologist’s or the conservationist’s point of view, he did it no violence. This is because he had, in place of what we would call education, a fully integrated culture, the content of which was a highly complex sense of his dependence on the earth. The same, I believe, was generally true of the peasants of certain old agricultural societies, particularly in the Orient.
Whereas the native people had transported themselves through and about this region for thousands of years using small trails, the settlers chose to make a broad road, presumably to facilitate the export of that first agribusiness crop, tobacco, or its successor, cotton. Whereas native people, on a cold night in the woods, would have built small fires, with temporary shelters around them to contain the heat, these settlers laid waste to the hickory trees and heated the whole outdoors around them.
The road builders, on the contrary, were placeless people. That is why they ‘knew but little’. Having left Europe far behind, they had not yet in any meaningful sense arrived in America, not yet having devoted themselves to any part of it in a way that would produce the intricate knowledge of it necessary to live in it without destroying it. Because they belonged to no place, it was almost inevitable that they should behave violently toward the places they came to.
Berry’s verdict: “We still have not, in any meaningful way, arrived in America.” And though the American populace has always included those who have attempted to settle down, to care for the land, to establish local economies and communities that the land could support – in short, to indigenate themselves – the prevailing culture of America (and certainly the elite culture) has always been essentially rootless, seeing the land only as a resource from which to extract wealth, and then pull up stakes and migrate west, or (a few generations later) migrate to the city, or (even more recently) migrate into the new managerial class, in obedience to the demands of ‘progress’ and economic self-betterment. The rootlessness of industrialism has perhaps reached its pinnacle in modern transnational corporations, which exhibit no loyalty even to the nation-states that have subsidized and protected them. It is mirrored by the doctrine of neo-classical economists, who insist that land must be viewed as simply a form of capital.
Meanwhile, the self-indigenated subcultures, such as the Amish, are scorned and marginalized as ‘backwards’. For along with rootlessness, industrialism as Berry sees it is characterized by a contempt for manual labour and small-scale projects – particularly the sort of patient, careful farming that is necessary if we are to farm in ways that enrich the soil rather than deplete it. Berry recounts a personal anecdote illustrative of the general attitude: having established himself as a respected writer and obtaining teaching jobs at several prestigious universities, Berry decided to return to Kentucky. A senior colleague took him aside:
‘Young man’, he said ‘don’t you know you can’t go home again?’ He went on to speak of the advantages, for a young writer, of living in New York among the writers and the editors and the publishers… His argument was based on the belief that once one had attained the metropolis, the literary capital, the worth of one’s origins was canceled out. There simply could be nothing worth going back to… Finally, there was the assumption that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modern experience, and that the life of the rural towns, the farms, the wilderness places is not only irrelevant to our time, but archaic as well because unknown or unconsidered by the people who really matter – that is, the urban intellectuals.
3. Industrialism and capitalism. What I now want to show is that Berry’s critique of industrialism overlaps highly with the FMA critique of capitalism. Berry’s vignette about the Kentucky roadbuilders, and their dispossession of indigenous peoples, is of a piece with, for example, Kevin Carson’s discussion of ‘primitive accumulation’ in Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, ch. 4.2 As Carson argues, you do not get a capitalist system – i.e. division of society into a capitalist class, who own the means of production, and the remainder, who must work for them – unless the would-be capitalists first forceably seize a vastly disproportionate share of the society’s wealth, principally through state action. The extractive nature of capitalist enterprise, and its accompanying rootlessness, so eloquently lamented by Berry, is due to the capitalists’ ability, with state collusion, to forceably enclose the property of others, externalizing their costs of doing business, including inputs such as land and energy, or outputs such as toxic wastes. Berry points out that – unlike the self-regulating consumption of resources within a balanced ecosystem, or a sustainable human society within that ecosystem – for industrialists the question ‘How much is enough?’ can only be answered ‘As much as possible’. From the FMA perspective, this reckless, greedy behaviour is due to the same cause: capitalists, having externalized their costs of doing business (in the short term, at least), have every incentive to grab as much profit as they can, and call it an ‘economy of scale’. The dismissive attitude of Berry’s colleague towards rural folk is simply a manifestation of the hierarchical view of society that one must adopt in order to be ‘successful’ in capitalist terms, either outright success as a member in the capitalist class, or its poor step-cousin, success in the professional-managerial class, including academia, as an intellectual handmaiden of capitalism.
Berry’s critique here could, however, have been improved by combining it with Carson’s FMA analysis. How did Berry’s Kentucky frontiersmen, for example, come to be ‘placeless’ people, ready to do the bidding of the early US land speculators and their mercantile and slaveholding elite allies? These Scotch-Irish settlers were themselves forceably dispossessed of their land, their livelihoods, and their culture by the enclosures and highland clearances wrought by the proto-capitalist elite of Great Britain. In ‘Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community’, Berry describes precisely this sort of economic dispossession, focussing on a community of northern English farmer/weavers in the late eighteenth century, in the parish of Hawkshead:
Before this time, idleness at a fellside farm was unknown, for clothes and even linen were home-made, and all spare time was occupied by the youths in carding wool, while the girls spun the ‘garn’ with distaff and wheel… The sale of the yarn to the local weavers, and at the local market, brought important profits to the dalesman, so that it not only kept all hands busy, but put money into his pocket. But the introduction of machinery for looms and for spinning, and consequent outside demand for fleeces instead of yarn and woven material, threw idle not only half of the family, but the local hand-weavers, who were no doubt younger sons of the same stock.
The result was that these ‘dalesmen’ had to mortgage their lands, and then lost them to the emerging capitalists. Not only their individual livelihoods, but their rich local culture was destroyed. But Berry here seems to accept that technological innovation, operating through market forces, was itself sufficient to ruin the Hawkshead weavers. He therefore adopts a neo-Luddite posture, hinting that some mechanism is needed for prohibiting the development or adoption of technologies which may prove socially harmful. But he never specifies in whose hands this prohibitory decision-making power would be lodged – to his credit, he has a clear distaste for authoritarian solutions – and so his critique ends up muddled and incomplete. Berry’s analysis could have been strengthened, and moved in a less technophobic and agoraphobic direction, by consideration of the range of violent and coercive measures that early English capitalists employed to force small farmer/weavers such as these Hawkshead dalesmen, or rather their children, into the textile mills, as chronicled by E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class, and as summarized by Carson in his discussion of primitive accumulation. It thus appears that technological innovation and market forces were not the primary culprits in the destruction of communities like Hawskhead: rather, it was old-fashioned state violence. Without this violent dispossession, these farmer/weavers might have adopted power-loom and spinning jenny technologies themselves within the framework of worker cooperatives. Or they might have developed alternative sorts of textile technology, perhaps better suited to the structure of their households and communities. We therefore don’t need top-down prohibitions on particular sorts of technology, we merely need to oppose and undermine the violence that threatens genuine free markets.
4. Mourning what has been lost. But if Berry’s critique of industrialism lacks a certain rigour supplied by the FMA perspective, I submit that FMA critiques of capitalism are often comparatively superficial, particularly in recognizing the cultural component of liberty, and its flip side, the cultural destructiveness of capitalism. In the tradition of Enlightenment liberalism, we typically speak of liberty as something enjoyed and exercised purely by individuals. As the Hawkshead example above illustrates, there is something about industrialism/capitalism that leads it inexorably and systematically to commit cultural genocide. It takes as input economically autonomous communities, chews them up, extracting as much wealth as it can, and spits out atomized individuals, stripped of the rich cultural ties that gave their lives meaning, and of their ties to the land. It then forces these individuals to subsist in a new, bleak economic landscape, wherein their only possible roles are as employee and consumer, wherein their well-being or impoverishment is subject to the whims of distant, powerful economic decision-makers whom they do not know, and who do not know them. By way of comparison, observe the jovial sense of self-sufficiency and neighbourly generosity expressed in ‘The Farmer’s Toast’, a pre-industrial English drinking song:3
I have lawns, I have bowers, I have fields, I have flowers / And the lark is my daily alarmer. / So jolly boys now, here’s God speed the plough / Long life and success to the farmer.
Come sit at my table, all those who are able / Let me hear not one word of complaining. / For the tinkling of glasses all music surpasses / And I love to see bottles a-draining.
For here I am king, I can laugh, drink and sing. / Let no man approach as a stranger. /Just show me the ass who refuses a glass / And I’ll treat him to hay in a manger.
Let the wealthy and great roll in splendour and state, / I envy them not, I declare it. / For I eat my own ham, my own chickens and lamb, / And I shear my own fleece and I wear it.
Admittedly, there is something backward-looking in much of Berry’s writing, particularly his articles from the 1970’s and 80’s – a grieving for what has been lost. For Berry grew up in a rural community that pre-dated agricultural industrialization, and he experienced this loss first-hand. But such grief need not be a mere exercise in idle sentimentality. Today, nearly all of us are refugees of this cultural devastation, most without any memory of the pre-industrial community that is our birth-right as humans. Berry’s moving accounts of cultural loss can fire our imagination and desire for the cultural elements that we might work to restore.
5. Looking forward. Though Berry never describes himself as an anarchist, I find it significant that his most concrete prescriptions for remediating the harm of industrialization are not statist policy measures but agorist ventures. Indeed, Berry is acutely aware of the collusion between big business and big government. In ‘The Idea of a Local Economy’, Berry writes:
What has happened is that most people in our country, and apparently most people in the ‘developed’ world, have given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food, clothing and shelter. Moreover they are rapidly giving proxies to corporations or governments to provide entertainment, education, child care, care of the sick and the elderly, and many other kinds of ‘service’ that once were carried on informally and inexpensively by individuals or households or communities… The danger now is that those who are concerned will believe that the solution to the ‘environmental crisis’ can be merely political – that the problems, being large, can be solved by large solutions generated by a few people to whom we have given our proxies to police the economic proxies we have already given… Communism and ‘free market’ capitalism are both modern versions of oligarchy.
Instead, he advocates the re-establishment of local economies, through Community Supported Agriculture ventures, farmers’ markets, and similar proposals. He suggests that the industrial capitalist elite are so preoccupied with globalizing the scale of their operations that they will not grasp the significance of this small-scale alternative economic movement developing under their noses. This is all strongly reminiscent of the anarchist IWW strategy of ‘building the new world in the shell of the old.’ A relocalization movement has since sprung up, under various names (de-growth, slow food, the hundred-mile diet, Transition Towns, permaculture), or under no name at all, all over North America. In my city of Edmonton – in the shadow of that vast industrial obscenity, the Alberta tar-sands – farmers’ markets and community gardens have proliferated within the past decade. Wendell Berry is, directly or indirectly, the intellectual father of this movement. There is no reason though that this relocalized economy should be limited to the agricultural sector, nor is there any reason for it to eschew sophisticated production technologies, such as 3-D printers, as Kevin Carson argues at length in Homebrew Industrial Revolution. With these supplementary provisions, Berry’s programme for social transformation becomes indistinguishable from that of Freed Market Anarchism.
I have a remaining quibble, though, with Berry’s notion of agrarianism, which he defines as the set of values, attitudes and practices that lead to proper care for soil, in contrast to industrialism. Fair enough. But at times he seems to conflate this agrarianism with the culture of rural Kentucky in which he grew up. He acknowledges that not everybody is meant to be a farmer or to live in rural areas. But he seems to hold up rural living as the agrarian ideal. It is worth noting, however, that the rural lifestyle in North America, with its isolated farmsteads, is quite aberrant in comparison to farming in the rest of the world; it is a consequence of colonialist settlement patterns.4 The more typical agrarian pattern, among indigenous peoples and old-world peasants, was/is one of farmers living together in villages and going out to work their fields and orchards, individually or in teams. There is something, I believe, salutary and essentially human, in living together. In any case, isolated rural living does not appeal to me personally at all. Cities and towns have the advantage, as Richard Register has noted,5 of maximizing opportunities for personal interaction while minimizing transportation costs. Whereas Berry, despite his general neo-Luddite stance, admits that he can’t enjoy any sort of social life in rural Kentucky without the regular use of a car. Moreover, there are sound reasons to grow food within cities as much as possible. Firstly, because that’s where the biggest market of consumers is. But secondly, because conventional agriculture has so depleted the soil of rural areas that urban soils are often healthy by comparison. The environmental problem with cities is not population density per se, but urban design which prioritizes cars over people. With a shift away from car use, large areas within cities could be de-paved and given over to food raising. Paris, for example, still has many urban market gardens, and until recently the city was largely self-sufficient in food production. In sum, Berry’s agrarianism need not be anti-urban. Rather, agrarianism must be brought into the city.
A final point concerns Berry’s observations on land tenure. C4SS.org recently had a mutual exchange symposium on this topic,6 but none of the contributions, including my own, addressed Berry’s concern. In brief, he argues that proper care for soil requires a long-term relationship between a particular farmer (or set of farmers) and the soil, flora and fauna of a particular place. The farmers must have intimate knowledge of the particularities of that place; they cannot practice one-size-fits-all farming methods; rather they must skillfully adapt their methods to the constraints and advantages of that place. This practice is not something that farmers could pay employees to do for them. Nor can their farm be so large as to preclude this kind of specific local knowledge. And the farmers cannot regard their stake in the land as something temporary, something readily alienable. Ideally, for Berry, a multigenerational commitment is required between a particular farming family (perhaps an extended family) and the piece of land. Berry does not go beyond identifying these sorts of desiderata, but if we take them seriously, they suggest a return to something like the mediaeval fee tail for agricultural lands.
3See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXszEXAFx_Q for a performance by Folly Bridge.
5 Register, Richard (2006). Eco-Cities. New Society Publishers.