October 14, 2004

Agrarian politics

Ming's decision to vote for the Libertarian candidate for President is refreshing. Even though I'm solidly behind Kerry, and implacably against George W. Bush, it's nice to be reminded that the political world isn't black and white.

Although from day to day I hew pretty closely to the standard liberal line, when I let myself imagine the kind of world I'd really like to live in, I realize that I'm not really a liberal. Liberalism has a lot to recommend it, but it has several important flaws. For example, there is really no way to criticize modern consumerism within the liberal tradition. The liberals share with neoconservatives the idea that everyone ought to be able to afford to eat at Olive Garden. Everyone ought to have the opportunity to sign up for cable TV. Everyone ought to have a job (liberals) or at least the opportunity to find one (neoconservatives). This is ok, as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough.

If you believe that human happiness can't be bought at the mall, neither liberalism nor neoconservatism offers a useful political roadmap, because both ideologies argue that theirs is the best way to put a mall in everyone's neighborhood. They argue over the means, not the goal. This is why the "fringe" political parties are so important. Libertarianism, for example, doesn't assume that everyone's idea of happiness is the same. Paleoconservatism rejects the idea that globalization is akin to nirvana.

On a day-to-day basis, I usually hew to the standard liberal line. The modern Republican Party's positions are bad for many of the reasons that the liberals give, so it's not hard for me to come across like a standard liberal. When I ask myself what policies I actively support, though, I realize that I'm not a liberal. I'm an agrarian.

I like the idea of self-sufficiency. I'm not opposed to trade, but I am opposed to the kind of economic centralization that makes continental populations dependent on just a handful of corporations for their incomes, their entertainment, and their food. Outside of our large cities, entire towns are employed by one or two employers that ship their goods all over the world. Everyone in the town buys all they need at Wal-Mart, who can sell for less because their size gives them certain economies of scale. Their radio stations are all Clear Channel, their TV stations are Sinclair, and their movies are all Disney. Neither liberalism nor the modern strain of conservatism sees this as inherently problematic. Agrarians do.

As an agrarian, I think that industrial, centralized agriculture is a bad thing, compared with numerous family farms. I think we would be better off if a higher percentage of our population were farmers. The ideal of self-sufficiency isn't limited to agriculture, though. It's a theme that runs through most of what my kind of agrarianism advocates. Freedom has an inverse relationship to dependency, and that relationship is why private property is so important. Property isn't a consumer good, it's a means for insuring independence. Democracy has an inverse relationship to centralization. The responsibilities of democracy are more willingly discharged when people know that their votes matter. They matter more when the political decisions are made locally, rather than nationally or internationally.

Agrarianism does not imply a distaste for cities. It doesn't equate to Luddism, or a desire to go backward in time to the last historical moment when family farms were the norm. It does mean that we might progress furthest by recognizing those elements of our past that are superior to what we have now, instead of holding to the irrational belief that newer is always better. Agrarianism does mean a critical evaluation of new technology, and a realization that some new technologies are more harmful than helpful.

Agrarianism isn't monolithic, either. Just like conservatism has several factions, agrarianism can be roughly divided into two major versions. One, the one that I don't subscribe to, is a socially traditionalist philosophy that emphasizes religion and hierarchy. Russell Kirk is a good example of this version of agrarianism. The other strain, the one that I like, is best exemplified by writers like Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey. This strain emphasizes localism and respect for the earth.

Anyway, it's too bad there's no agrarian candidates on the ballot this year.

"A leader leads from in front, by the power of example. A ruler pushes from behind, by means of the club, the whip, the power of fear."

--Edward Abbey

Posted by Carey at October 14, 2004 10:02 PM
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