Reflections on the Southern Agrarians and their lessons for us today
Eastman Johnson (American painter, 1824-1906): Man With a Scythe – 1868.
I finally had the opportunity to acquire a book I have long wanted to read: “I'll Take My Stand: the South and the Agrarian Tradition” by “Twelve Southerners,” a collection of essays written specifically for that publication (called by its authors a "symposium") and published in 1930.
I have the 75th anniversary edition, and the much-ballyhooed introduction is pretty useless, being the usual screed by a contemporary female academic, bemoaning, belittling, or at best treating with pitying condescension the book's “whiteness,” “maleness,” and “fear of change” – which clearly must, in her view, be inevitably positive (“change is good... change is good” – and if you don't believe it, keep saying it until you do believe it), as long as it's away from maleness and whiteness.
As someone who is both male and white, myself, I have to admit, I'm getting a little tired of this mighty forest. You don't find people complaining about excessive “femaleness” or “blackness” in works written by people who are members of those demographics, do you? Why is it only males and whites (well, and Christians) who should be ashamed of being who and what we are, who should eschew any pride in our past or concern for our future? But I digress.
In any case, by choosing to focus on the parts with which she quibbles, she largely ignores or minimizes (although she acknowledges, albeit with thinly-veiled condescension) the major thrust of the book, which is a cogent and impassioned critique of the culturally dominant techno-industrial ideology and the profit motive. It reminds me of someone who, in the presence of a beautiful and majestic natural vista, might choose to complain about a mosquito or the trickle of sweat down his cheek. Unfortunate!
The introduction aside (and I recall, from my college days of medieval studies, deciding that academic introductions to the works of eminent authors were usually best ignored, in favor of the primary source material itself: see C.S. Lewis "On the Reading of Old Books" – trust me, it applies), I am liking what I'm reading. I haven't gotten very far into it yet, but – as I had expected would be the case – I am finding my thinking very much in line with the twelve Southern Agrarians who contributed to this volume.
Here is one exemplary passage:
“Ambitious men fight, first of all, against nature; they propose to put nature under their heel; this is the dream of scientists burrowing in their cells, and then of the industrial men who beg of their secret knowledge and go out to trouble the earth. But after a certain point this struggle is vain, and we only use ourselves up if we prolong it. Nature wears out man before man can wear out nature; only a city man, a laboratory man, a man cloistered from the normal contacts with the soil, will deny that. It seems wiser to be moderate in our expectations of nature, and respectful; and out of so simple a thing as respect for the physical earth and its teeming life comes a primary joy, which is an inexhaustible source of arts and religions and philosophies” (“Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” John Crowe Ransom).
And here is another, among many others that could be cited:
“Even the apologists of industrialism have been obliged to admit that some economic evils follow in the wake of the machines. These are such as overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth [this was written in 1930!]. But the remedies proposed by the apologists are always homeopathic [that is, they attempt to “cure” by application of the same thing that caused the disease in the first place]. They expect the evils to disappear when we have bigger and better machines, and more of them. Their remedial programs, therefore, look forward to more industrialism. Sometimes they see the system righting itself spontaneously and without direction: they are the Optimists. Sometimes they rely on the benevolence of capital, or the militancy of labor, to bring about a fairer division of the spoils: they are Cooperationists or Socialists. And sometimes they expect to find super-engineers, in the shape of Boards of Control, who will adapt production to consumption and regulate prices and guarantee production against fluctuations: they are Sovietists.
“With respect to these last it must be insisted that the true Sovietists or Communists – if this term may be used here in its European sense – are the Industrialists themselves. They would have the government set up an economic super-organization, which in turn would become the government. We therefore look upon the Communist menace as a menace indeed, but not as a Red one; because it is simply according to the blind drift of our industrial development to expect in America at last much the same economic system as that imposed by violence upon Russia in 1917” (ibid., emphasis added).
In this, the Southern Agrarians perceived or intuited something that is all-too-often lost upon both sides of the political aisle today: that the distinction or “conflict” between Capitalism and Communism is largely illusory. Economic systems, like political systems, exist less on a linear spectrum than one shaped more like a horseshoe: just as either the political left or the right, if pushed far enough, come around to authoritarianism or totalitarianism, so Capitalism – at least, the type of crony capitalism or corporate plutocracy one sees in the ascendant today – and Communism (or Sovietism, as Ransom puts it) both result in a fateful collusion between governmental and corporate power.
The real distinction is between Industrialism, as perceived by the Southern Agrarians – or Corporatism, as I refer to it, because nowadays it has as much to do with esoteric financial wizardry as it does with any sort of material or commercial production – and which is characterized by constant expansion (also known as “progress”), flux, struggle, and the quest for MORE, and Agrarianism, also sometimes known as Traditionalism, and finding a close ally in the concept of Distributism conceptualized and promoted by Chesterton and Belloc: the sacred and all-but-lost art of ENOUGH, of seeking balance and equilibrium, peace and stability, in a right relationship with God, Nature, and one's neighbor (*).
There can be no doubt or question where I must place my own flag – where “I'll take my stand.”
(* I have believed for many years that a part of my vocation in life was to help to re-weave the connections between and among God, Nature, and humankind that have been strained and torn by our contemporary techno-industrial civilization. I just never realized that this would have a political and economic dimension!)