Posts tagged with: Wendell Berry

[Part 1 is here.]

Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, details how the growth of government-corporate cronyism during the past 120 or so years has been largely a phenomenon of the socialist left. Wendell Berry misses this crucial historical insight in his running critique of capitalism, and his missing it draws him into flatly inaccurate claims, as when he asserts that “the United States government’s agricultural policy, or non-policy, since 1952 has merely consented to the farmer’s predicament of high costs and low prices; it has never envisioned or advocated in particular the prosperity of farmers or of farmland …”

This makes it sounds as if the government is largely uninvolved in agricultural markets, letting the winds of the free market blow wherever they wish. It’s true that the U.S. government has moved away from buying and destroying food as it did under FDR in the Great Depression, a statist attempt to prop up commodity prices while countless Americans went hungry. But even since 1952, and in a dizzying number of ways, the American government has been busy erecting all manner of protections for American agriculture, from fat subsidies on rice and other grains to import quotas on sugar, price supports on milk, and a long-running policy of paying farmers and ranchers to idle parts of their land. (more…)

[Part 1 is here.]

In his case against capitalism, Wendell Berry argues that the average person not only is anxious because he depends upon so many other people for his wellbeing (truckers, utility companies, etc.) but that he ought to be anxious. There’s a grain of truth here. We shouldn’t become helpless sheep without a clue what to do were the power to go down for a couple of days in January. But inter-dependency, far from a sign of cultural sickness, is the mark of a healthy society, one where enough trust exists to allow for broadening circles of productivity and exchange, for markets that extend beyond clan and tribe. (more…)

[Part 1 is here].

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the ring leader of a little band of first-century Jewish rebels asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” He’s sure the answer is absolutely nothing, but one of the rebels meekly pipes up with “The Aqueduct.” A moment later another rebel squeaks, “And the sanitation.” Then another, “The Roads.”

"What have the Romans ever done for us!"

“What have the Romans ever done for us!”

The ringleader grudgingly grants all of this and then tries to wrench the meeting back on track. “But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads—” Before he can even finish the sentence, others–warming to the brainstorming challenge–begin chiming in: “Irrigation?” “Medicine?” “Education?”

The list could work just as well, and in some instances, more easily, for the British Empire. The scene also works as a metaphor for neo-agrarian essayist Wendell Berry and his relationship to capitalism and the U.S. Tobacco Trust that dominated the cigarette industry at the turn of the previous century.

Picture Berry gathering together a little knot of agrarian Distributist rebels on the back stoop of his Kentucky farm and rousing them with the purely rhetorical question, “What have the capitalists and big tobacco ever done for us?!”

The answer, I would suggest, is quite a bit. (more…)

Part 1 is here.]

An economically free society doesn’t have to be hyper-utilitarian, materialistic and banal; and yet, here we are, living in a capitalist age marked by these very features. Some social conservatives who see capitalism as one of the main culprits argue that we should turn away from both socialism and greedy capitalism, toward a more humanitarian and community-based approach, toward a small-is-beautiful aesthetic of farmer’s markets, widespread property ownership, social responsibility and local, collective enterprise, a political and economic strategy that would allow us to move beyond the noisy, vapid, bustling tackiness that has come to characterize so much of modern life.

The poet farmer and essayist Wendell Berry, and journalist and Crunchy Cons author Rod Dreher are among the more prominent contemporary defenders of this view. They build on the earlier work of writers such as E.F. Schumacher, Malcolm Muggeridge, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

Belloc, in particular, often regarded as the father of Distributism, advocated government policies that would divide productive property more equally and spur the economy toward more buy-local patterns and greater individual contact with the land. His Distributist vision called for an active, top-down approach to the reallocation process. Here’s how Belloc put it in his 1936 work “An Essay on the Restoration of Property”:

We must seek political and economic reforms which shall tend to distribute property more and more widely until the owners of sufficient Means of Production (land or capital or both) are numerous enough to determine the character of society…. the effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice.

There are some problems with this vision of cultural renewal. (more…)

The West has made some remarkable steps forward culturally in the past several generations, as, for instance, in the areas of civil rights (the unborn being a notable exception), race relations, and cooperation among Christians of different traditions. We shouldn’t indulge a false nostalgia that overlooks this progress. That being said, you can visit almost any major city in the free world today and find evidence of cultural decay on a host of fronts: malls dripping with images of sensuality and hedonism; girls from respectable, law abiding families dropped off at school dressed like prostitutes; boys sitting beside them in class able to pull up a world of pornography on their smartphones and often doing so; chronically high divorce rates; a plummeting number of homes with the biological father present; commercials telling you, implicitly or explicitly, to Obey Your Thirst; recreational drug abuse—on and on we could go.

The challenge extends even to what many of us would characterize as “good homes.” (more…)

Blog author: jcarter
posted by on Thursday, May 3, 2012

“Can one have an off day in giving the Jefferson Lecture (an off week or month in writing it)?” asks Matthew J. Franck in reference to the recent NEH honor afforded to agrarian Wendell Berry. “I’d like to think so. For judging by the text of the lecture Berry gave in Washington at the beginning of this week, his thinking can be fairly repellent.”

Titled “It All Turns on Affection,” his lecture is chiefly a catalogue of Berry’s hatreds. He hates wantonly destructive land use, soil erosion, mountaintop-removal mining. So far so good.

He hates “agribusiness” and large-scale farming, though it is a great success story in the battle against hunger. He hates “corporations” and derides the notion that they are “persons” in the law, sounding as much like a wise man as the average backbench Democratic hack in the U.S. Congress. He hates “industrialism,” “plutocracy,” and “capitalism,” explaining why his thought is popular among a certain breed of college professors. He hates “materialism” but seems unable to transcend it at any point in this lecture.

Taking a breather from his litany of loathing, he indicates that he loves Nature, which he capitalizes, and draws attention to capitalizing, just in case we might be too slow to miss his implicit pantheism. He loves the local, and he loves the land, and he loves the impressive but largely vacuous sentences he composes about them.

Read more . . .

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Picking up the comment thread from this post.

pauldanon says: “Because distributism is people-centred, things like medicine would be a priority. There’d need to be infrastructure for that, but nothing like the grotesque infrastructure we presently have for shipping frivolous imported goods around the country.”

I know it’s futile to point out obvious things to a distributist. The fixed, false beliefs undergirding distributism are impervious to reason and experience. But let me try one more time, perhaps for the benefit of those new to this nonsense.

Wishing a “people-centred” economy into existence is integral to the distributist fantasy. But how does its magical, humane “infrastructure” come into being? Would you have the steelworker who loads the arc furnace at the mill that supplies the metal for the dentist’s drill become more “people-centred”? How? Maybe he is ordered to pause every 30 minutes to read Wendell Berry poems to his co-workers as the furnace melts its batch of scrap? Or perhaps the fellow on the diesel engine line gets a union-mandated break to strum folk music on his banjo? Or maybe the jumbo jet assembly plant can set aside plots of land for organic gardening?

These examples are as absurd as distributism. Which is more of an aesthetic, a sensibility, a nostalgia for a bygone era that conveniently ignores pervasive wretchedness, than an economic possibility. And at the heart of distributism is the hidden coercive impulse that would prohibit ordinary folk from behaving and consuming, as pauldanon says, in “frivolous” ways.

That’s the key isn’t it? In a distributist economy, we’ll need a Czar of Aesthetic Consumption to decree what is “frivolous” and what is not. That’s how you order “priorities.” Perhaps the Czar would publish a regular Compendium of Consumer Errors, updated to thwart any new and distasteful consumer demand. But pauldanon’s frivolity and mine won’t always line up. Imagine all the frivolous things and past times that actually make life tolerable for masses of people who care nothing about the distributist program. Would the Czar of Aesthetic Consumption allow a person to walk into Walmart and buy a box set of some really bad TV show for viewing on a monstrously large flat panel HD screen? Horrors! How about a weekend bus trip to Branson to take in the latest Elvis tribute? Are you kidding? Playing golf on a summer afternoon? The Czar would not be amused.

But oh wait — there’s Mondragon, a “cooperative.”

pauldanon says, “Mondragon looks a bit industrial and kibbutz-like. Don’t they make machines and run supermarkets? That’s somewhat removed from three acres and a cow.”

But Mondragon sells its capital goods, appliances, industrial components and whatnot into the vastly larger market economy – according to the market economy’s competitive demands – and without which Mondragon would cease to exist.

Here’s the latest news about Mondragon’s global expansion in the auto industry. Doesn’t sound much like the guild system to me. Btw, “polymer” is a euphemism for plastic, the raw materials for which are made in petrochemical refineries. These refineries can cost billions of dollars to build, and millions of dollars annually to maintain. The engineers who construct these plants don’t follow a “small is beautiful” ethic. And where does Mondragon get the computer-controlled machine tools necessary for molding the auto parts? Does it ring up the Ancient Order of Molding Machine Craftsmen?

Mondragon auto parts coop moves into India

This joint venture is a part of the globalization process which the cooperative is undergoing in order to meet the requirements of the key players in automotive manufacturing, who aim to set up a panel of suppliers able to offer global development and production. The new India plant will be the second Cikautxo facility in Asia, as this year production was commenced in China, in the plant located in the industrial park which MONDRAGON has in Kunshan, an area close to Shanghai. Cikautxo, apart from its plants in the Basque Country and Aragón, also has production plants in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, China and now India.

The Cikautxo Group, which develops and manufactures parts and groups in polymer materials for different applications, forecasts consolidated sales this year of 220 million euros, of which 85% will be from the Automotive market.

A funny thing happens when you give people the freedom to make their own economic choices. They do quirky and “frivolous” things. But that freedom is indispensable to the sort of life we actually live today in this country. Most don’t want to join the distributist hobbits in their workshops hand tooling leather sandals and fitting barrel staves together. Short of a distributist takeover of America (which could only happen in a bad TV show), millions of souls who daily and freely make untold numbers of economic choices that affect their own well being will merrily go on doing their own thing. They may choose to work and shop in co-ops, or not. Whatever they choose to do, one thing is certain. The distributists will carry on with their fixed, false beliefs.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky has the cover story for the upcoming issue of WORLD magazine, and it’s worth reading in full, “The revival of localism.”

Olasky’s basic narrative focuses on “young men and women who understand that they are Christian pilgrims in this world—but they expect to stay in one place, making friends and being of service, unless and until God moves them on.”

He has a number of salient data points and interesting interviews, including Caleb Stegall, the exemplar of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons. Economically-speaking an emphasis on localism can easily embrace distributism.

Thus, writes Olasky,

An emphasis on local control of government, local production and consumption of goods, and local culture is popular among young Christians. Their favorite author is often a pre-baby-boom author and Kentucky farmer, 76-year-old Wendell Berry. Berry praises reverence for God and life, the pleasures of good work, good food, and frugality. He says those joys are more likely to be found in healthy rural communities that value small farms and don’t overdose on technology.

But Olasky’s is, I think, a generally accurate assessment, and one that provides a good entry point to ongoing cultural developments. The Acton Institute has lived out this emphasis on decentralization, in one sense, and has from the beginning, by locating itself out of the Beltway by design. Olasky’s piece is sub-titled, “Young conservatives reject lure of Washington, D.C., in favor of a more powerful place-home.”

One shorter term economic driver is only mentioned in passing by Olasky: “…declining property values have crushed many hopes of upward mobility.”

The housing bubble has crushed not only upward mobility but also mobility more generally. The myth of the rootless generation is going to be demolished by the mere fact that anyone who bought a house in the last ten years is generally going to be unable to get out from under it for perhaps the next decade. That’s just about a generation of relatively immobile homeowners.