Friday, December 16, 2016

Australia and the South: Brothers in Agrarianism

We are glad to find our kinsman across the waters reading the works of Southerners like Thomas Jefferson and Wendell Berry.  From a report by the Australian National University E Press, Tracking Rural Change (ch. 3):

Agrarianism and country-mindedness

In his fascinating history of agrarianism, Montmarquet (1989) tracks the idea and its many interpretations from the early classical thinkers, through the French physiocrats and Thomas Jefferson, to Wendell Berry in the twentieth century. His book illustrates the point made by rural sociologists that the agrarian concept is both nebulous and malleable, and that it can be used rhetorically for apparently contradictory purposes (Beus and Dunlap 1994; see, for example, Halpin and Martin 1996:21). The seminal definition of agrarianism is provided by Flinn and Johnson, who identify the following five ‘tenets of agrarianism’:

·         farming is the basic occupation on which all other economic pursuits depend for raw materials and food

·         agricultural life is the natural life for man; therefore, being natural, it is good, while city life is artificial and evil

·         farming delivers the ‘complete economic independence of the farmer

·         the farmer should work hard to demonstrate his virtue, which is made possible only though [sic] an orderly society

·         family farms have become indissolubly connected with American democracy’ (Flinn and Johnson 1974:189–94; italics in original).

This description encapsulates two important features of agrarianism. First, agrarianism rests on the belief that agricultural pursuits are inherently worthwhile and wholesome. Montmarquet (1989:viii) summarises this as ‘the idea that agriculture and those whose occupation involves agriculture are especially important and valuable elements of society’. Farming pursuits are regarded as conducive to the development of moral behaviour and thinkers such as J. S. Mill and Thomas Jefferson advocated small-scale agriculture for social rather than economic reasons. Mill argued of small-scale peasant agriculture as practised in Europe that ‘no other existing state of agricultural economy has so beneficial effect on the industry, the intelligence, the frugality, and prudence of the population…no existing state, therefore is on the whole so favourable both to their moral and physical welfare’ (Mill 1893:374).

Griswold (1946:667) explains that, for Jefferson, ‘agriculture was not primarily a source of wealth, but of human virtues and traits most congenial to popular self-government. It had a sociological rather than an economic value. This is the dominant note in all his writings on the subject.’

More recently, Wendell Berry (1977:11) linked the demise of small-scale agriculture to the rise of undesirable characteristics of exploitation, waste and fraud, suggesting that modern life had caused a ‘disastrous breach…between our bodies and our souls’. His contrast between the exploitative mind and nurturing is consistent with earlier interpretations of agriculture’s worth, which extends beyond the economic to the moral. As well as promoting virtue, agricultural activity is seen as valuable because it is regarded as the starting point of civilisation—without settlement, art, culture and other pursuits that depend on large groups of people could not have evolved. Settlement allowed for specialisation. Agriculture, as opposed to hunting and gathering, provided the basis for settlement.

The second important characteristic of agrarianism is that it is half of a dichotomy, the other half of which is non-farm life and which on all counts fails to measure up to the morally superior, if economically inferior, status of farming. Flinn and Johnson (1974:194) refer to the agrarian perception that ‘city life is artificial and evil’ and they go on to argue that ‘[w]ithin agrarian belief there is pride, a certain nobility, in what man accomplishes by the sweat of his brow. There is suspicion about a man who makes a living by using his head and not his hands.’

This dualism was evident in Jefferson’s thought. Initially, he hoped that the United States would remain an agrarian society, allowing Europe to house manufacturing activity and cities and their associated social problems. He argued that:

The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. (Cited in Griswold 1946:668)

In the Australian context, Don Aitkin has summed up agrarianism as country-mindedness. The term is of uncertain origin but is traceable to the beginnings of the Country Party in the 1920s. Aitkin’s formulation of the characteristics of Australian agrarianism reflects many of the points just discussed: the wholesome nature of agricultural activity and the contrast between the virtues of farming and the unpleasantness of urban life:

(i) Australia depends on its primary producers for its high standards of living, for only those who produce a physical good add to a country’s wealth.

(ii) Therefore all Australians, from city and country alike, should in their own interest support policies aimed at improving the position of primary industries.

(iii) Farming and grazing, and rural pursuits generally, are virtuous, ennobling and cooperative; they bring out the best in people.

(iv) In contrast, city life is competitive and nasty, as well as parasitical.

(v) The characteristic Australian is a countryman, and the core elements of the national character come from the struggles of country people to tame their environment and make it productive. City people are much the same the world over.

(vi) For all these reasons, and others like defence, people should be encouraged to settle in the country, not in the city.

(viii) But power resides in the city, where politics is trapped in a sterile debate about classes. There has to be a separate political party for country people to articulate the true voice of the nation. (Aitkin 1985:35)

 . . .

Source:  Merlan and Raftery, eds.,, opened 16 Dec. 2016


Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð!

Anathema to the Union!

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