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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Food, Farming, and Sovereignty in a (Late) Capitalist World

Two very thoughtful--and very unconventional, by mainstream American political standards at least--self-described conservatives have produced two very thoughtful pieces on food and farming in recent weeks. John Schwenkler--who is becoming a bit of a must-read for those who are interested in what "conservatism" is and where it's going, as I am--has a cover article in The American Conservative this week on why "renewing the culinary culture should be a conservative cause." And Caleb Stegall--my local Kansas populist idol (and sometimes antagonist)--had a fine and lengthy review of Michael Pollan's recent work appear in the independent conservative publication Taki's Magazine a couple of weeks back. Both are pieces that much deserve every thinking person's attention, and both pieces mostly make good sense. Mostly, that is.

John's piece isn't as provocative as Caleb's, but is possibly more important for all that: his aim is simply to get people who describe themselves as "conservatives"--more plainly, anyone who considers themselves a friend of families and traditions and what Russell Kirk called the "permanent things" in life--ought to think seriously about the food they eat, about where it comes from and what it consists of. He starts out discussing how various advocates of local food production, sustainable agriculture, neighborhood gardens and all the rest have often come to the point they're at through what are usually considered to be "leftist" critiques of big business, pop culture and all the rest. But "a closer look tells a different story"; what's really going on in these co-ops and community supported agriculture farms, John asserts, is teaching people "redemption through a deep appreciation for the real, the authentic, and the lasting--for the things that money can’t buy: the very things that matter most of all if we are going to lead sane, healthy, and sustainable lives." In other words, rebelling against big agriculture and fast food is an act of conservation, and thus ought to be a conservative cause.

Now, to anyone who has followed this blog and my frequent preoccupation with Rod Dreher's "crunchy con" movement at all over the years, this doesn't sound at all new; I've been arguing that there is something "conservative"--or at least "illiberal"--to the movement against our corporate-dominated, too-easily-commodified food world ever since I reviewed Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. But while John's main thrust is to make a cultural argument over what he thinks properly should be conservative priorities and practices when it comes to producing and consuming food (a thrust I agree with, and which Michael Pollan, one of the gurus of the movement, agrees with too--see Rod's interview with Pollan in the same issue as John's essay, in which Pollan confesses that "[W]henever I write about food or nature, I feel like I am actually to the Right...the 'Wendell Berry-Michael Pollan Right'"), he also wants to be able to stake a claim for a style of conservatism that is more than traditionalism, a conservatism which partakes of America's "liberal" (or libertarian) contribution as well:

Adopting an alternative view of food does not require rejecting the possibility of a free and prosperous market economy. Indeed, the rise of the New American Diet—meals eaten in a rush and very often alone, made from processed and prepackaged ingredients—was not solely or even primarily the product of Adam Smith’s invisible hand....The substitution of state-sponsored nutritionist technocracy for the collective wisdom of taste, instinct, common sense, and tradition is a perfect example of the triumph of Tocqueville’s feared "immense tutelary power" ("absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild"). The same goes for the extraordinary industrialization and global "flattening" of our culinary economy....Price controls and multibillion-dollar farm subsidies prop up corporate agribusiness and discourage smaller producers from trying to find alternative market niches. Real local autonomy--setting regulatory standards that do not conform to national or international ones, restriction or taxation of imports or exports, and preservation of place-specific forms of agriculture and animal husbandry--is undermined because it makes for economic inefficiency. The natural capacities of location, season, and culture to link people together and shape the ways they farm and eat are countered by artificial measures designed to maximize yield.

But it is exactly these social and cultural dimensions of our culinary economy--the centralization of processing and production into an ever shrinking number of multinational corporations, the incredible distances over which food travels before it reaches our tables (an average of 1,500 miles in the United States), the loss of idiosyncratic foods and food cultures, and so on--that should raise the greatest concerns for traditional conservatives....Hence even the smallest acts of resistance to the hegemony of the present system, where corporate representatives and industry-funded scientists at public universities collaborate with government officials on regulatory policies and nutritional guidelines, are crucial steps in recovering local culture and reconstituting our "little platoons." This will nurture the ability to govern--or resist being governed.

There is much wisdom in that passage, with its invocation of Burke's "little platoons" and its slam on Friedman's "flat," globalized economy. It is properly suspicious of corporations and respectful of localist "economies of place." So what's the problem? Nothing really...except that, in the end, it seems to posit the revival of such localism in terms of "resistance" to a government invariably corrupted by various industrial and "expert" interests. The goal is local "autonomy," which--unless one wishes to get all philosophical and argue over different interpretations of Kant--is, politically at least, another way of saying local "independence." And I've nothing against independence. But an independence that does not address how that locality is not just supposed to become free, but also how it is to be sovereign--that is, able to establish itself, govern itself, exercise authority over its place and build something lasting there--is not really going to be able to pull off the kind of cultural transformation John wants to see happen. He speaks, to be sure, of nurturing self-government, but also of resisting government--which is sometimes necessary, but which also leaves the door open to libertarian assumptions that I do not think are helpful to his--to our--cause.

This is where Caleb's essay comes in. Caleb has sharp things to say about what Pollan gets right, and about Pollan's disconnect from the actual work that farmers do as well. Ultimately, his essay makes the argument which John only gestured at in harsh, polemical terms:

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of Kansas secessionists [actually, local farmers organizing a farmer's market]. The participants were rowdy, complaining of economic gigantism squashing them flat and bureaucratic thugs hounding their every move....Damned were the federal busy-bodies who tell local farmers what they can and can’t sell; condemned were the centralized agents of agribusiness who want ID chips implanted in livestock; mocked were the credentialed witch-doctors from the department of agriculture who own the brand "organic"....[W]hile there was no Declaration, it was clear that these small growers wanted out--out of forced participation in the economic union of cheap mass production, central planning, credit money, and the ignorant consumerism they despised.

Michael Pollan would understand. His The Omnivore’s Dilemma and its sequel, In Defense of Food, amount to a manifesto for farmer’s markets and locally produced food across the country. Meticulously researched, Pollan’s work chronicles and traces the gigantism that defines today’s food economy--and all the deleterious effects which result....In the wider (or narrower) world of the pundit "food wars"...these discussions tend to illicit either a retreat into faux philistinism or a mockery of the same. Pollan’s own response illustrates this tension well. His conclusions are in fact deeply traditional--one might even venture to call them conservative--a fact he acknowledges, yet one which clearly makes him uncomfortable....

Pollan’s sensibility is that of the kitchen lover--an admirable thing to be sure--but it’s a love that tends to go unconsummated in an age of gentile decadence. He frets continuously over the ethics of killing a chicken for dinner. He admits he is uncomfortable with the conservative culture of the farm. His tentative solutions tend towards state intervention rather than true laissez faire. Honest redneckery comes by dint of sweat on the brow, clods underfoot, and mud on the frock. Down at the feed store, the sun-burned, dirty men I talk to would be more likely to open up a can of whup-ass on Pollan’s hand-wringing self than celebrate his latest gourmand achievement. To bridge this chasm requires a firm recognition that self-provisioning is dirty work done by sun hardened men who obtain not the rarefied sophistication of the credentialed witch-doctors and their organic brews but membership in the rarefied league of freemen who can pretty much tell anyone and everyone, as circumstances may require, to go to hell without concern for the consequences (taxman excepted). That’s the feed store definition of freedom in Jefferson (yes, that Jefferson) County, Kansas, though it’s not taught much in social studies textbooks.

Caleb--brilliant writer and thinker that he is--frames his cri de coeur in terms of secession: secession from modern agricultural and eating practices, secession from a government and an economy of educated experts and high-income industries, and--though he doesn't come right out and say so--secession from the sort of modern life which has been built up through the aegis of such institutions. It's a reactionary call. Now in some ways I find that comforting; critiques of the whole system of modernity are things I'm familiar with, and radical reactionaries like Caleb are hardly advocates of stereotypical libertarian nostrums. But then again, if you're looking first of all for freedom, if you're looking to secede, then you're probably not looking too much to engage, and it is engagement--a taking control of the land and the means and the habits which are our own, and that means political and economic as well as cultural engagement--that is needed here. Caleb mentions "interdependence" at the end of his screed, and interdependence fits much better with what this whole argument is really about than does John's "autonomy," but the context--social, political, and economic--of that interdependence is yet to be struggled with.

I don't want to overemphasize my disagreements with John or Caleb, which are comparatively minor. But still, those minor disagreement can lead to large misunderstandings, and large misappreciations of our situation. What is our situation? We live in a capitalist world, and a late one at that, meaning that the long, fruitful, but also destructive process of specialization has reached the point in the U.S. of leaving us with, as Caleb observes, a population that mostly does not know how to "self-provide," because we live in a world where providing for oneself (not to mention the land and the resources upon which one might do so) has been outsourced, locked away by corporate land-grabs or shipped away or forgotten with the passage of time; the very notion of self-provisioning itself has come to be seen as inefficient and time-consuming and costly, and most of all disrupting--paradoxical as that may seem--to today's culture of the (therapeutic, narcissistic) self. So what must happen is the self must be properly empowered, and that means by getting all our selves to understand their (again, our) connection to communities of agency and responsibility, and that means changing the reigning connections in our modern world so as to make space for such understandings to play themselves out. A simple rejection of modern practices is a good start, but seeing the forces and the history arrayed against us--or, more honestly, the movements and the history which most of us modern American have internalized and embraced to a certain degree--it is probably not enough to plant you own garden, as important as that surely is; you also have to find away to make a community of gardeners matter in terms of how people collective spend and save and eat. The farmers and ranchers that Caleb observed in his essay maybe angry about the world of "bigness" into which they have been thrust, but unless they (or we) remake the big so that it provides a platform and a context for the local and small, no one is going to be building anything that lasts. You may be exercising food and farming independence, but you're not exercising any sovereignty over your local world of growing and consuming--you'll just be working out your own particular "don't tread on me"-type of compromise with the agriculture powers that be. Hence do the "fuzzy-headed Marxists" that John's essay starts out with aim to get their produce and their ideas about sustainable and local agriculture into the public schools, to start reworking the connections and assumptions and practices which dominate our food economy from within. That's the right way to go--maybe not the way all of us want to go or can go, but the sort of way which, collectively, we need to go. I agree with John (and, again, with Pollan) that "libertarian politics [sometimes] makes for crunchy results," but occasional crunchy results to not a crunchy community (locality, polity, whatever--take your pick) make.

This is not an indiscriminate defense of, as Caleb frames it, "state intervention" over "laissez faire." It is, rather, an acknowledgment that the modern state was not simply or entirely thrust upon the sort of self-provisioning citizens he wants to see recreated, but was also accepted and contributed to in its development by many of those same citizens, because (in some no doubt inchoate way) they wanted a chance for their children or grandchildren to become the beneficiaries of specialization, and thus become, well, academics like John and myself. This is not to apologize or excuse the damage that large-scale, high-yield, government-sustained, commerce-driven agriculture has done to the planet's land and our diets (this delightful take-down of the myth of the Green Revolution which John points to, a myth sustained by corporate entities who insist that transforming the world of farming to make it more about monocultural and exportable cash crops than about diverse, locally traded foodstuffs, is a must-read). But it is, however, to note that, for examples, modern cities with modern workforces would for the most part be unimaginable without it. Is that an argument to abandon efforts to rethink all this as impossible? No, but it does mean that we have to deal with the arguments and opinions we have inherited. Six years ago, the wonderful Catholic (and conservative) blogger Eve Tushnet, as part of a wide-ranging and angry attack on the work of Wendell Berry--an attack which praised international trade and the corporations which gave us "butter and disco" (a silly line, I know, but she has a point)--argued forcefully that "cities are among the most beautiful things on earth" and that "[w]hatever the benefits of an agrarian life, I have never yet seen a defense of agrarianism that did not require socialism in order to sustain itself. And socialism spells the end of the very independence and loyalties that agrarians so eloquently praise." I don't think she's right (for the record, in the order she makes these claims, my answers are: no, cities are nice but they aren't the most beautiful thing; sort of yes, a successful agrarian politics does usually involve certain socialist or social democratic socio-economic assumptions; and no, socialism needn't be the death of independence and loyalty). But she is speaking in context of the late capitalist world we have, and that is the world that--unless we wish to endorse Rod's (and before him Alasdair MacIntyre's) "St. Benedict" solution--we have to struggle to exercise, if only in one small place at a time, some sovereignty over...and that will mean government. To quote Patrick Deneen:

Many if not most policy debates today take place within the context of a broad and general agreement that economic growth is the ultimate end of policy. If we began to bring in other human goods that could be considered legitimate--ones that might at times lead to less economic growth--it would be possible to debate some actual policy alternatives. It would be possible to consider policies that would encourage and defend local economic and communal forms of life, rather than what occurs in our current political arrangement, which is almost always to their detriment. Nor is it simply a matter of arguing that we can achieve more robust local forms by reducing the size of Guvment (particularly Federal government). While I would dearly love for this to happen in some nearly unimaginable future, in the meantime one of the main challenges for such local forms are the immense concentrations of power among private entities, corporations in particular. Government had much to do with their ascent; it will have to be involved in their restraint.

What are the policies which "defend local economic and communal forms of life"? Well, populist ones, like the Conservation Security Program which my family's farm makes use of, or the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association which Wendell Berry and others have praised, or any others which have the broad public good in mind. Basically, anything that truly takes seriously the socio-economic context of modern life--diversification, specialization, urbanization, etc.--and attempts to productive engage and discipline it. To me, this suggest looking in particular at those producers who are falling through the cracks--not the small CSA farmers (as important as they are) who survive by tending to mostly upscale and urban markets, and not the owners of huge corporate giants (who suck up far too many subsidies and just need to be weaned out of existence anyway), but those who are working mid-sized farms (perhaps 200 acres, perhaps 1000 acres), who still sell their crops on the open market and still make decisions about what to plant and how to manage the soil and when to harvest themselves, who still can manage the land and pass down that knowledge directly, frequently within their families. It is these mid-sized farms which are most able to produce unique, highly differentiated commodities in sufficient quantities to be able to participate in economies of scale, and it they who are most at risk. We shouldn't just give up on them, and nor should we tell them that they just need to hold on until a hundred million libertarian successions from the modern capitalist order transform their world. Such a response is, in the end, an unwillingness to take on responsibility. And responsibility is one of those Jeffersonian virtues that a close and thoughtful engagement with the world of food and farming is supposed to teach us in the first place.

Obviously, there's much to think and argue about here, and I thank John and Caleb for giving me reason to do so. I've gone on at great length because I always do, and because these are important issues, not necessarily because my disagreements with them are so extensive as to deserve such. As I've said before, if they'll have a traditionalist-socialist like me in their coalition, I'm game.


Rox Sen said...

The key to creating a more sustainable world is to figure out how to mass produce and mass market sustainability, in essence, co-opting the status quo. A new franchise-ready sustainable farming system called SPIN-Farming provides an example. SPIN makes it possible to earn significant income from growing vegetables on land bases under an acre in size. SPIN farmers utilize relay cropping to increase yield and achieve good economic returns by growing only the most profitable food crops tailored to local markets. SPIN's growing techniques are not, in themselves, breakthrough. What is novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. SPIN provides everything you'd expect from a good franchise: a business plan, marketing advice, and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process it really isn't any different from McDonalds. By offering a non-technical, easy-to-understand and inexpensive-to-implement farming system, it allows many more people to farm, wherever they live, as long as there are nearby markets to support them, and it removes the two big barriers to entry – sizeable acreage and significant start-up capital.
Every day more and more first generation farmers throughout the world are using SPIN as an entry point into the profession. They are using front lawns and backyards and neighborhood lots as their land base. Most importantly this is happening without significant policy changes or government support. Not only is SPIN starting to be used as a "force multiplier" to re-establish locally-based food systems, it is also serving as a catalyst for inventive activity by designers, planners and developers. By utilizing the best of the three assets we have - urbanized landscapes, technological agility and an environmental ethos - rather than pitting one against the other, we have the chance to create the best of all possible worlds.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks very much for commenting. I've heard about SPIN Farming (here's a link for anyone interested), and I admire its principles, though I confess I'm pretty leary of its franchising style; it seems to me that it would be much better to see its principles and practices and know-how made available to farmers and others intrigued by what it's offering without having to literally "buy" into the program. But then, maybe I've just been burned by pyramid schemes too often. In any case, ultimately SPIN is just a means to increase the productivity and availability of CSA-type agriculture resources...which certainly is a good thing, but it still leaves the question of the professional, mid-sized farm--the one being slaughtered on the open market by corporate, government-subsidized competition--unresolved. And, pseudo-populist that I am, I think that's what most needs attention.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, Russell. I'll be interested to see John's response too.

By the way, if Stegall's "sun-burnt dirty men"/Jeffersonian yeoman farmers would open up a can of whup-ass on Michael Pollan for having the temerity to even worry about the ethics of killing a chicken, I'd hate to think what they'd do to me. Maybe it's because I experienced plenty of it growing up but macho posturing doesn't strike me as a substitute for argument.

(Also, I assume he meant "genteel decadence" not "gentile decadence"??) :)

John B. said...

Thanks for this. I don't have anything of substance to say directly to/about your post, apart from thanking you for making the distinction that you do between "independence" and "sovereignty" (or, maybe, "interdependence"?). It strikes me as well that one could make an analogous distinction regarding those neighborhoods in urban areas that themselves are diverse economies in miniature--here in Wichita, for example, I have in mind the Delano District, which lacks only (and thus could use) one of those small "corner" grocery stores (not a convenience store, and not some fru-fru gourmet food store) to achieve a kind of economic sovereignty relative to Wichita. Compare Delano, though, to the Hispanic/Asian neighborhoods just to the north of downtown Wichita, which have numerous "corner" stores of just this sort.

This is a bit of a tangent, so apologies: I'm all in favor of cities' encouraging urbanites to live in central business districts and near-downtown areas; but developers (and maybe those who devise the master plans for these spaces as well?) in the cities I know best where this sort of thing is happening make sure that restaurants get built in these areas, but not corner markets. All these urban loft spaces thus become another sort of bedroom community, one turned inside-out from the way we usually think about those things. Desperate attempt to link up with your post: Such markets would be ideal buyers for the mid-sized farmers getting crushed by agribusiness.

Sorry to go on so. You post just resonated with some things I've been thinking about regarding the part of town I live in.

Russell Arben Fox said...


If Stegall's "sun-burnt dirty men"/Jeffersonian yeoman farmers would open up a can of whup-ass on Michael Pollan for having the temerity to even worry about the ethics of killing a chicken, I'd hate to think what they'd do to me. Maybe it's because I experienced plenty of it growing up but macho posturing doesn't strike me as a substitute for argument.

I don't want to dump on Caleb, because that would mean dumping on the farmers he is--I think mostly accurately--invoking, but you're touching on one of the unavoidable realities of populism: that treating a people's prejudices and preferences as legitimate and as a worthy basis of political often means, well, allowing them to express contempt for choices they don't understand or dislike. It's not pretty...and in this particular case, regarding animal rights, not one that'll be easy to resolve. As you've noted on your blog, probably the most persuasive and most potentially successful of all animal rights arguments are liberal ones (even the Christian ones are individualist in focus). You put that up against long-standing farming traditions, and you've got a recipe for misunderstanding over the long haul. (I've no solution to this; just to say "Bummer, man," and hope that the many agreements you'd likely have with the self-provisioning farmers Caleb and I would like to help along will be enough to paper over the disagreements they might have with you.)

Russell Arben Fox said...


It strikes me as well that one could make an analogous distinction regarding those neighborhoods in urban areas that themselves are diverse economies in miniature--here in Wichita, for example, I have in mind the Delano District, which lacks only (and thus could use) one of those small "corner" grocery stores...to achieve a kind of economic sovereignty relative to Wichita.

Yes, exactly! This takes the conversation in a somewhat different direction, obviously, but the beginning point is the same: to exercise some sort of sovereignty over a place identified as one's own requires a socio-economic context one can build upon. Some neighborhoods have that, or nearly do, and to the extent they have it, they can truly enrich the lives of those who live there, by among other things giving them alternatives to driving themselves and their kids all over the place to shop, meet friends, etc.

I'm all in favor of cities' encouraging urbanites to live in central business districts and near-downtown areas; but developers (and maybe those who devise the master plans for these spaces as well?) in the cities I know best where this sort of thing is happening make sure that restaurants get built in these areas, but not corner markets.

Good point. People are waking up to the need to recover walking traffic in and around city centers and where restaurants, etc., are located, but the corner store is going that a harder time making a comeback. All the more reason to emphasize it, I suppose.

Incidentally John...I love the bike blog! I'm going to be checking it regularly, and will probably link to it and maybe post something about it as well.