The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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Agrarianism
Jeremy Beer - 12/23/11

As Carlson shows, this group heralds the advent of a new and distinct type of agrarianism. Although its proponents’ political affiliations varied widely, they all shared a deep dissatisfaction with many aspects of modern economic, political, social, and religious structures. The urbanized, mass consumerism of industrial society had come into focus for them as a characteristic feature of modernity in a way that it could not have for the earlier republican agrarians. Some form of resistance to modernity, some alternative, was therefore needed. Several antimodern agrarians, among them John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, also developed an epistemological critique of Enlightenment scientific rationality, a critique that has been carried forward today by Wendell Berry. Much like Tate, Berry’s ethical critique of modern society rests, like his epistemological critique, on the argument that mass technological industrialism collaborates with science to enshrine a view of human beings and the natural world that treats objects and people as essentially interchangeable. Such arguments can be found throughout Berry’s corpus, but they are brought together most systematically in his Life Is a Miracle: An Essay against Superstition (2000).

For conservatives, the Southern Agrarians have been the most influential of the antimodern agrarians. Their manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, was published in 1930 and is usually regarded as a classic of conservative cultural criticism. An oft-overlooked sequel, Who Owns America? appeared six years later. The leaders of the Southern Agrarians—Ransom, Tate, Donald Davidson, and Andrew Nelson Lytle—would continue to develop agrarian themes and arguments for some years, although Ransom bowed out of the struggle earlier than the others. While they shared the republican concerns of their southern forebears Jefferson and Taylor, they also charged modern industrialism with promoting irreligion, extinguishing great art and high culture, degrading the quality of human relations, and, not least, destroying the older rural, aristocratic culture—all of which were to become central concerns for later traditionalist conservatives.

The Southern Agrarians failed to spark the agrarian renaissance for which they had hoped, even in the South, but they did leave behind some intellectual successors, most notably Richard Weaver, M. E. Bradford, and the self-proclaimed “Northern Agrarian” Russell Kirk. Still, except for its occasional championing by writers like these, agrarianism has persisted at the margins of mainstream postwar conservative thought. Many conservatives have regarded agrarianism as romantic, reactionary, illiberal, impractical, and insufficiently appreciative of the manifold material and physical blessings that are the fruit of modern industrial society. Thus, agrarianism is a wedge that highlights the deep philosophical differences concerning the social, political, and cultural conditions that promote human flourishing which run like a fault line through the conservative movement.

By far the most influential agrarian today is Berry, a novelist, essayist, poet, and critic who lives and farms in Kentucky. Although Berry does not call himself a conservative, his stories and essays are profoundly subversive of liberal modernity and share many affinities with traditionalist or agrarian conservatism. His essays are characterized by humility toward nature and the cosmos, unwavering skepticism toward modern notions of progress, and a practical and epistemological critique of technology. Berry’s agrarian economics attempts to call attention to the ways in which the contemporary global economy undermines traditional cultures and stable communities, divorces economics from ethics, supports and is supported by big, distant, bureaucratic government (and is thus antidemocratic), and threatens ecological health. In his fiction Berry attempts to evoke the traditional agrarian world of midcentury Kentucky, with all its vices and virtues, in an attempt to preserve in a modern audience some memory of the good that existed in such a world, a type of good that he fears has now been, or is being, lost. Berry has found a sizable audience among traditionalists and social conservatives.

In the 1990s, magazines like the Anabaptist Plain and the Catholic Caelum et Terra (1991–96) emerged as loci of a new grassroots agrarian movement, attracting readers from across the political spectrum, though virtually all could in some sense be called culturally conservative. And in the last decade, Hanson, until recently professor of classics at Fresno State University, and Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, have also emerged as leading scholars and conservative defenders of the agrarian vision. Their different approaches reflect the bifurcation of the conservative agrarian tradition: Hanson the republican agrarian focuses on the role the farming life has played in inculcating the rougher democratic and masculine virtues, while Carlson the anti-modern agrarian emphasizes the family-friendly, traditional culture that agrarianism tends to nurture.

Further Reading
  • Berry, Wendell. The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Edited by Norman Wirzba. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002.
  • Freyfogle, Eric T., ed. The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2001.
  • Malvasi, Mark G. The Unregenerate South: The Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
  • Taylor, John. Arator: Being a Series of Agricultural Essays, Practical and Political: In Sixty-Four Numbers. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1977.
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