According to David Rieff, FPR occupies an honorable space on the right side of the American commentariat spectrum, in that many of our writers (1) are willing to admit the reality of American decline, and (2) do not reflexively blame this decline on anti-American liberal elites. Rieff calls us “agrarian pessimists,” and I for one accept the commendation, although I am not pessimistic about agrarianism. Rieff also groups us with those “serious Christian conservatives” Larison, Dreher, and Deneen (which is to praise FPR twice, I guess).

Rieff’s piece is worth reading. There really is a magical-thinking quality to the product of conservative “intellectuals”: “America can never decline! And if it does, it’s their fault! Those other people!” really isn’t convincing analysis; indeed it is very juvenile. But it whips up half the masses rather easily — and therefore it can be a wonderful tactic for furthering one’s career and filling one’s pocketbook. My only difference with Rieff might be that I’m not sure most of the conservatives he mentions really believe what they say: they may not really be “modern idolators of force, exceptionalism, and the will.” But they are at least willing to spur such idolatry among their followers for personal gain. Which is even more despicable, actually.

By the way, belated thanks to Daniel for his FPR birthday greetings. There is no better conservative writer on foreign and domestic politics than he. Daniel is in a class with Bacevich.

Also by the way, here is my old American Conservative piece on David Rieff’s father Philip. I am sure he would have similar contempt for contemporary conservative pundits, although that contempt would extend to virtually all members of the commentary class, I’d wager.

22 COMMENTS

  1. “America can never decline! And if it does, it’s their fault! Those other people!” really isn’t convincing analysis; indeed it is very juvenile.

    I’d be interested to hear what you think the role “agrarian pessimists” have played/are playing in the decline of America.

  2. Joe — not sure what your question is. My point was to agree with Rieff that so-called “agrarian pessimists” like Berry, and some of us at FPR, are willing to confess that America is in decline, and that admitting as much may be a sign of maturity, not of brainwashing at the hands of “anti-American” liberals. But I suspect you agree with that much, anyway.

  3. From Rieff’s article I took it that he was making two related claims:

    1) America is in decline.
    2) The blame for this decline is not solely due to the actions of anti-American liberal elites (or the populist for that matter).

    I certainly agree with both points; I think the blame lies, to greater and lesser degrees, with all of us. And from your comment I took it that maybe you believed the same and would agree that rather than saying that it was “Those other people” being the problem, it would be the fault of us too (though I’m not fully onboard with agrarian pessimism, I’m at least a fellow traveler). I was just curious what role in the decline you think the APs play.

    In my too quick reading of your post, though, I may have been reading to much into it.

  4. “Pessimists”? I’d prefer “Skeptics” or “Realists” or the full service “Curmudgeon”…though some of us are more curmudgeonly than others. There is rather little to be achieved by being pessimistic about the future nor to be pessimistic about life in general. Its akin to being pessimistic about the fifth breath from the one you are taking right now.

    Personally, I think America, the land and her people possess reasonable odds of pulling their heads out and getting on with enjoying the possibilities of this land if they could only manage to make Washington D.C. part time, as originally intended.

    One need not be pessimistic about this government, in fact, I’m personally optimistic about it, optimistic that it is going to self-destruct in a picturesque manner…likely over something not yet seen nor imagined, probably weirdly small to boot.

  5. Joe — Yes, I think we are in agreement. I just don’t know that there is some specific kind of “blame” to apportion to “agrarian pessimists.” But if you think otherwise, I’d love to hear it.

  6. But if you think otherwise, I’d love to hear it.

    No, not really, at least nothing original. I do tend to agree with the common complaint they the APs are great diagnosticians but can present no realistic agenda for helping us to get out of this mess.

    Its been the retro-utopianism that has kept me from completely buying in to a movement (for lack of a better term) that I am very sympathetic to. If the program requires some sort of apocalyptic event before it can be practically implemented you’re going to have a hard time making converts. I loved Kunstler’s “World Made By Hand” but it’s not a world I really want to raise my family in. I’m not that pessimistic.

  7. Joe, one criticism I’ve never understood is that which regards the neo-agrarians (let’s call them that, for lack of a better term) as “utopian.” It is precisely the utopianism of the perennial-progress crowd that these folks criticize. It is the magical-thinking idolatry of the will that Rieff identifies in his piece that is the target of their criticism. And how does it square to regard a school of thought as, at one and the same time, both “utopian” and “apocalyptic”?

    The APs don’t have a practical program that has a chance of being instituted–that is a criticism I can at least understand, even if I don’t agree with it and think that it frames the question in a very wrong way. But the utopianism critique utterly escapes me; it is as if the critics have never read a word actually written by the APs, but instead project onto them all of the very bad things that they Know About Rousseau from their political theory class at the University of Chicago.

  8. Joe, one criticism I’ve never understood is that which regards the neo-agrarians (let’s call them that, for lack of a better term) as “utopian.” It is precisely the utopianism of the perennial-progress crowd that these folks criticize.

    One of the key characteristics of utopianism is a preference for an ideal society based on a preferred set of civic virtues. In that respect, agrarianism has always been utopian. There seems to be an underlying belief that we took a wrong turn back in the Jeffersonian era and if we could just reset to that point and “get back in touch with the land, etc.” we could get back on track. I’m certainly sympathetic to that idea and would be happy if it were possible. Sometimes I think I’d like to live in Narnia too, but that ain’t going to happen either.

    There’s no going back (well, there is but we’ll get to that in a minute) to the point where agrarianism can gain a foothold in American life. It wasn’t even possible in the 1920s and we’ve drifted much further from the shores since then.

    It’s like we’re on the Titanic, slowly sinking, and the agrarians are saying that if we had stayed moored to dock we could be building some rowboats. Well, sure, but how does that help us now.

    And how does it square to regard a school of thought as, at one and the same time, both “utopian” and “apocalyptic”?

    I’ll admit I’m woefully undereducated about the views of the Southern agrarians of the early-20th century. But I believe that one of their tenets was to reestablish “agriculture as the leading vocation” since being tied so closely to the land brought with it all sorts of character and community building benefits. I’ve always understood that to be the heart of agrarianism (I could be wrong about that, especially as applied to neo-agrarianism).

    In the 1920s and 1930s, the competing model was industrialization. To that we can now add the service economy model. Everything about agriculture as a vocation is moving further toward the industrial-service mode rather than toward agrarianism. If agrarian thinking can’t even recapture agriculture, how is it going to become a dominant worldview? There seems no path going forward for agraranism to take root. Unless . . . we hit the reset button.

    I certainly don’t want to imply that all—or even most—agrarians secretly pine for an apocalyptic event. But there are some who recognize that an apocalypse could be a chance to start over and get things right. It’s not that they are eager for a disaster, its just that they are expecting it as the next stage of History. Also, they aren’t looking for a nuclear winter so much as a post-peak oil economic collapse. Something more along the lines of World Made By Hand than The Road.

    The APs don’t have a practical program that has a chance of being instituted–that is a criticism I can at least understand, even if I don’t agree with it and think that it frames the question in a very wrong way.

    Maybe your right. That may be why my interest in agrarianism remains at the aesthetic and theoretical level. It’s like steampunk culture—its fun to think about but it doesn’t have a lot of practical relevance to my life. Sure, I go the lifestyle conservative route—tune in (to the land), drop out (of the superficial culture) and go raise chickens on some land back in Texas (which is my backup plan anyway). But can agrarianism be a solution to our larger problems?

    But the utopianism critique utterly escapes me; it is as if the critics have never read a word actually written by the APs, but instead project onto them all of the very bad things that they Know About Rousseau from their political theory class at the University of Chicago.

    When I say that they are utopians, I don’t mean the progressive types that believe man is inherently good and that we could all progress to a wonderful world of equality and tolerance. It’s more akin to the utopianism of the radical libertarians where, if you can’t change culture, you carve out your own space. The libertarians have their dreams of seasteading platforms out on the ocean and the neo-agrarians have their farms out on the plains. But if the answer of both groups is to leave the rest of us behind, how is that going to make things better?

  9. …”you carve out your own space”…..ok, perhaps “Whittling Pessimists” will do then.

    Agrarianism is literally enriched by mud on the boots but it does not have to be completely agricultural when followed in a political sense. At heart, it is about community, limits, place, liberty…..those things on the masthead of this website. It is about harvest in a full sense of the word. It is about the edification of Labor and Craft when underpinned by a spirited intellectual life. Its about a realization that when shortcuts are taken , one can expect to come up short in ways un-anticipated and anticipated.

    While there are a number of “us” who speak in apocalyptic terms and enjoy the easy target of the current totalitarian regime, this does not automatically mean the tanker needs to hit a reef and sink…..although the ease with which the crunchy liberals have allowed the Obama apparatchiks to slide fully into Washington Technocratic ways gives pause, but the outward pessimism is a manifestation of certain pollyannish sensibilities that think the citizen is fully capable of far better.

    But, as to “carving out your own space”. This is the hallmark of American History and the modern technocratic culture, though providing all manner of consumer “choice” is steadily eroding this ability and the reaction to it, and growing pushback is gaining more momentum every year. We have not yet seen it manifest a major political force but it surely will.

  10. I have to agree with Joe’s reservations about the “diagnostic” nature of this site. I don’t often comment, and if I do my comments are either sarcastic or subversive, not so much because I don’t respect the intelligence and quality of thought and word here, but because so often the dialogue turns into a high-brow pissing contest that still always begs the question: What then shall we do?

    Theoretical discussions are important, but if nothing with legs is birthed, the discussion has been masturbatory.

    Everything revolves around the endless struggle for control. When we seek power in Washington or Wall Street, we cede Heavenly power. And until a generation refuses to seek earthly power and refuses to be identified with Left or Right, or any of the endless “ism’s” coined by man, and chooses instead to be identified as nothing other than the servants of the Risen Christ that do only what they see their Father doing, we will continue slide to toward the apocalypse that the FPR pundits rightly, but dimly see. As a modern prophet said a few years back: The Lord is not coming to take sides, He’s coming to take over.

    Sorry for the mini-sermon, but a man can only sit on the porch for so long before he goes and says something stupid.

  11. Pessimist? Hell no. My sweet wife designed our house (with a real good front porch) and also stoned our 30-foot chimney at the age of 65. There are two types of people who cannot by definition be either utopians or pessimists: farmers and golfers. Think about it, or try one or the other if you haven’t. Anbody who thinks that agrarians can be utopians is talking about “agrarians” who have never grown anything, but like to read about it.

  12. Anbody who thinks that agrarians can be utopians is talking about “agrarians” who have never grown anything, but like to read about it.

    That’s a brilliant line Mr. Wilson and one with which I fully concur. I’ve often found it odd that the people who refer to themselves as agrarians are more often philosophers rather than farmers. (Indeed, I’ve never met a full-time farmer that called themselves an agrarian.)

    The agrarians that I was referring to as utopians are often the ones that think it’d be ideal if we were forced to return to an agriculture-centered way of life, but that don’t actually want to leave academia for the farm.

    (My very limited experience with the farming life convinced me that while it may be good for my character, it sure wasn’t much fun. Talking about agrarianism is much more interesting than cleaning out the chicken coops.)

  13. Mr. Carter,

    I think you are working with a drastic caricature of agrarianism–one that is, unfortunately, perpetuated by many agrarians themselves, so I don’t much blame you for having it. And please, for goodness sake’s, don’t read the Twelve Southerners to get a better sense of what today’s agrarians are about. They have their uses, but (at least in my opinion) they are more of a liability than a lamppost. I like to say that it was a great misfortune that the Twelve Southerners knew very little about farming, and it has been an even greater one that their most fervent devotees and most adamant detractors know even less. In his essay “Imagination in Place,” Wendell Berry does a good job of giving those Southern Agrarians their due while graciously pointing out some of their inadequacies.

    But anyways, back to the agrarian caricature. Basically, it runs something like this: We hate industrialism in general and industrial agriculture in particular. Thus, we want everyone to move out into the countryside and be subsistence farmers, just like the good old days. In other words, we want to crank back the clock.

    This caricature relies on a couple of really insidious false correspondences–we might call them agrarian fallacies–1) diversified farming=subsistence farming and 2)scientific agriculture=industrial agriculture. Now, both of these correspondences gesture at a certain quarter-truth, while being in and of themselves patently wrong. Diversified farms certainly produce more of their own food, but they are primarily producing for the market (At least the diversified diary I grew up on sure was). Likewise, scientific agriculture has often devoted itself to throwing band-aids on the gory wounds of industrial monoculture, but it can just as easy use its powers for good. Take, for instance, Wes Jackson at the Land Institute, who is developing perennial grains that will eventually allow for a polyculture based agriculture. Of course, any good agrarian wants his or her farming to be rooted in tradition. Thus, we do have much to recover (and for quite practical reasons because, as some conservatives and most liberals tend to forget, tradition often preserves what works). But there is no reason why traditional agriculture, which is attuned to nature, and the science of agroecology, which is also attuned to nature, can’t work together to displace an industrial model based on pure hubris and short-term profit.

    Once we’ve dispensed with those fallacies, I have trouble grasping how anyone could ignore the plethora of practical solutions offered by today’s agrarians:

    1) Jackson’s polycultures (see any of his books)

    2)Reforms of zoning legislations, agricultural policies, and industry-favoring food safety laws, all of which stack the deck against small diversified farms and especially prevent direct marketing (see Joel Salatin’s Everything I Want to Do is Illegal).

    3)Raise more of our livestock on grass. This is perhaps the biggest one with the most payoff. It results in healthier meat; it costs less money (once you take the subsidized grain out of the picture); it is more ethical than feedlots; it uses far less fossil fuels; and pastures sequester carbon. I read somewhere that we could turn all of the cornfields used to feed cows now into pastures and have plenty of space to raise a prodigious amount of beef. (Sorry I can’t find this citation, but see anything by Jo Robinson)

    4) This is implied in number 3, but we need to take a hard look at how we subsidize corn in this country. Corn is not good for us, and the way corn production works now, it isn’t good for farmers either. It is good for agribusiness and for all the food processors who will undoubtedly soon be offering corn-syrup based asparagus. (see The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan)

    5) Establish CSAs and local farmers market. Oh, wait, that impracticable idea is already taking off in a big way.

    7) Measure agricultural productivity in terms of total food and fodder produced per acre, not in terms of a single cash crop. And while you’re at it, factor in long-term costs to the soil and the water. Believe it or not, but diversified farming (and especially traditional ‘subsistence’ agriculture) often produces far more stuff per acre than does monocultures. This one is aimed more at global food policy, which tends to discount the capabilities of existing diversified agriculture, which has itself often been damaged by subsidized American crops or by war or by lots of things other than true productive failure. I am obviously taking a shot at the Green Revolution here, but I am also trying to at least complicate the “feeding the world” charge that is aimed at agrarians/sustainable ag advocates. (See the writings of Vandana Shiva)

    I could go on, but I think you get the drift. Today’s agrarianism may not offer a simple and decisive route to revolution, but it does offer a whole passle of reforms that can begin to restructure our society and its foodways. And it already seems like the fundamental change is happening–people are more interested in where their food comes from. We don’t want everyone to be farmers, but we do want everyone to think about and even know farmers. We want them to realize, in Berry’s words, that “eating is an agricultural act.”

    One possible charge that could be leveled at me here is that I am conflating critical agrarianism (which can be either liberal or conservative) with philosophical agrarianism (which is on the whole traditionalist). I’d like to think that the two are overlapping and mutually constructive. Indeed, I think that philosophical agrarianism detached from practicality is so much nonsense, and critical agrarianism without philosophy is much the same. Wendell Berry is so special because he brings together both the philosophical and the practical.

    One last thought. I, for one, think that agrarianism isn’t a theory of everything. It should be a significant chunk of a wider political project. The Twelve Southerners, for instance, got a lot more sensible when they started engaging with the Catholic distributists (and the progressive sociologists at UNC, who were themselves critical agrarians). That’s part of the reason why I like Phillip Blond so much. He gives a wider vision of social good which includes significant agrarian reform.

    So re-localize those economies, re-moralize those markets, and re-capitalize the poor! And let all eat grassfed beef!

  14. Steve Knepper,
    Finally, a farmer! And with (of course, as farmers do) practical suggestions. Here is a list that meets the spirit of Mark Mitchell’s call for real solutions. Thank you, Steve.

  15. Okay excellent post Steve Knepper. One could also add Lord Northbourne as someone who combined critical or practical agrarianism with philosophical agrarianism(and indeed a wider traditionalist philosophy in which it happily sits.).

    It is indeed hard to see how the charge on being “Utopian”, if that is used in a derogatory way to mean airy-fairy and unrealistic, can be levelled at many agrarians.

    One summises that those who level this charge are probably very strongly drawn into certain mainstream cultural ideas which imply the immutability of current viewpoints on technology and society and one-directional, whig history idea of societal changes. They’ve been entranced by Ipods, Facebook and Hollywood into thinking such a culture is permanent, simply evolving in a one-dimensional, consumerist, liberal, urban and increasingly artficial pathway. Anyone with a grounding in conservative and traditionalist ideas should know how dubious such a perspective is.

    This is not suggest things don’t change, in fact in some ways it stresses that more than the progressivist who doesn’t allow for the idea of degeneration, but to include the necessity of building on those eternal things and not to allow us to be blinded by temporal changes, such as technology, to the point we forget the eternal completely and allow the temporal to push us along without us trying to order it at all. As Lewis Mumford’s work amply points out there is a high level of social impact on technological development and thought, there is no rigid line of technological development and often particular insights could have been used in quite divergent ways(centralised and decentralised being one of the big divides of course.); the Ipod was not inevitable once any use was made of computer technology any more than the popularity and influence of the motor car was inevitable from there being a reasonable chance an example could be built.

  16. Joe jobs aren’t fun in general. I think anyone with farming or homesteading experience or knowledge knows it isn’t often fun but they know, if they have experience or knowledge of other walks of life at least, that it is more rewarding than most jobs and indeed to that degree could be called more fun than most particularly as, for me personally, it juxtaposes far less jarringly with what I consider genuine fun like fishing, homebrewing and so on.

  17. Thanks for the good feedback, John. That is an amazing story about you and your wife stoning your own chimney. That sort of work is a true craft and, sadly, one that is in decline.

    I think you bring up some excellent points, Wessexman. And you introduced me to the work of Lord Northbourne, which I didn’t know before.

    I think you are especially spot-on about those who accuse agrarians of being romantic–they are often themselves too resigned to the way things are, even if they hate the current state of affairs. They have a sort of absolutist, all or nothing, fundamentalist’s faith in the law of progress. Everything that technology and science spit out today, every social ‘advance’ today, is the outworking of an irresistible teleology. That sort of thinking is the true opiate of the masses.

  18. Wessexman, I’ve been thinking more about your comments on technology, and I was wondering if you were familiar with Albert Borgmann’s “Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life.” If not, you might find it interesting.

  19. Faulting essays such as “A Mirror for Artists” and “Notes on the Southern Religion” because they lack effective instructions on how to re-establish agrarian communities would be rather like faulting “The Failure of War” because it is far too vague to work as a nuclear disarmament plan.

    Before we can pretend to do anything about the present, we must know what we are, what the world is, and what God is. Construction of a civilization that knows little or nothing of these deeper realities can only make things worse.

    Hence poets, novelists, and literary scholars can have important — maybe even crucial — insights about the state of the West’s collective soul.

    This is so regardless of whether or not they ran their own farms, or knew anything about genetics.

  20. No Steve I haven’t read Borgmann but he looks very interesting and I will have to check him out. I’m most grateful for Lord Northbourne for introducing me to the Perennialist/traditionalist school of thought but he is an exceptional writer in himself.

  21. Interestingly Wendell Berry introduces the Lord Northboure reader, called of the Land and Spirit, released by Worldwisdom.

  22. J.D., I certainly think that poets, artists, and literary scholars have plenty to say about the state of the western soul. (I am one myself, in addition to keeping a toe in farming, so I certainly hope so.) I have no idea why you’d think otherwise. I just think that poets need to be careful when they say something about real-world farming (rather than say, literary pastoral or georgic farming), which the Southern Agrarians most certainly do. And I’m not talking about just romanticizing the yeoman a bit. That’s plenty innocent enough and quite admirable. I’m talking about throwing a white-washed, pastoral veneer over the very modern institution of plantation monoculture and therefore hiding the true roots of the South’s ecological, economic, and social crises. Like it or not, I’ll Take My Stand is an irrevocably flawed text. It’s central opposition of an Agrarian South versus an Industrial North is a foundation of sand. Cotton, tobacco, sugar–these are cogs in the industrial wheel. It is stunning how few references to these cash crops are made in I’ll Take My Stand. It’s perplexing and damning when they claim that slavery was not central to the southern economy. The few fumbling attempts to wrestle with southern industrial agriculture are largely unconvincing. The Southern Agrarians say some very smart things about industrialism and nature in the abstract, but they seriously mischaracterize the Old South and therefore misdiagnose the South of their day. It wasn’t just the Civil War, Reconstruction, and northern industrialism that were bringing the South down–it was decades of growing cotton and of exploiting labor to do so. Now, it is mistaken to lump all of the Agrarians together. Ransom is perhaps the worst offender–he makes the Old South out to be Belloc’s premodern Christendom, which it most certainly was not. Lytle at least has the guts to admit that cotton monoculture has brought the South down, but his turn away from Ransom’s “squirearchy” and his romanticization of subsistence farming creates its own problems. Owsley’s essay is a pure racist rant. Those essays that focus on critiquing industrialism rather than romanticizing the South are for the most part quite good. For instance, I think Lanier’s essay is underrated, and I think Tate makes some excellent points.

    I stick by what I said above–they have their uses, but they sure have their flaws.

    The Agrarians did write some smarter things about real-world farming after I’ll Take My Stand.

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