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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Thinking About Wendell Berry's Leftist Lament (and More)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Wendell Berry’s sprawling, uneven, brilliant, and sometimes frustrating The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice will likely not, I think, be widely remembered after he leaves us as his greatest, most important work. But it is undeniably his longest, and arguably his most ambitious as well. Very late to the party, I have finally read through his wrestling with the entangled ideas of racism, history, patriotism, religion, public discourse, agrarianism, and more, and I’m glad I did. It is a book crammed with insights, thoughts that Berry has, as he makes clear in the book’s introduction, considered and re-considered, written, scratched out, and re-written, over many years. “I am surprised, slowly of course, by the slowness of my mind” he writes as a kind of apologia (p. 5). However, I was surprised as well to have retroactively discovered, long after completing the book, a through-line to his argument, one that mostly ties together most of its nearly 500 pages, despite the many zig-zags and dead-end observations (a few of which probably could have been eliminated or perhaps deserved further integrative reflection of their own) along the way. And surprisingly (or perhaps not), it was a work of Marxist economic history that helped me see it.

In my observation, conservatives who celebrate Wendell Berry's ideas deal with the seemingly leftist elements of his thought—his condemnations of corporate power, finance capitalism, and libertarian individualism most obviously, but his highly selective and somewhat distanced engagement with the traditionalist pre-occupations that define so much of our never-ending culture war is perhaps even more important--in a variety of ways. Some downplay those elements, some appropriate them into a post-liberal framework, and some insist that the localist or distributist character of the agrarian beliefs which he holds aren’t in any substantive sense leftist at all, but rather are actually conservative, properly understood. All of these approaches have their value—though given that Berry never makes, in all this massive book exploring prejudices in America, an explicit Burkean defense of prejudice, I am doubtful how far any of them can go in their attempt to claim these ideas of Berry's as "conservative" in any formal sense. Rather, while The Need to Be Whole will probably never be much read or appreciated by contemporary (and overly statist) socialists, I think his overarching intentions are clearly most at home with anti-capitalist radicals of the left. It is they, after all, who have most consistently lamented the destruction of the commons, and lamented all the divisive consequences which have followed its ruination at the hands of an expansionist capitalism which has, tragically, characterized American history from its beginning; their complaint is Berry's as well.

The destructive horror of slavery and its still-abiding legacies are, to Berry, not best understood in explicitly racialist terms, though obviously the primary way those horrors and those legacies were and are elaborated is via racial categories. Still, the millions whose lives were destroyed by the Atlantic Slave Trade and slave economy of the American South is, to Berry, of a piece with the—primarily socio-economic, though often also literal as well--destruction of millions of farming lives and hundreds of farming communities (which provided settled environments of provision and membership to families both black and white) by industrial agriculture. This is not some Heideggerian sublimation of human suffering to the logics of technology; Berry is excruciatingly particular in the way he talks about the ways in which Southerners of all races dealt with the Civil War and its aftermath, with reverberations that affect our historical assumptions and linguistic pre-occupations to this very day. But nonetheless, if Berry's book is to be understood as providing an alternative to the history of racial exploitation told in the 1619 Project, it isn't anything similar to then-President Trump's celebratory 1776 Commission; rather, it's a long, sad tale that begins with 1225's Charter of the Forest, and all the ways in which the fundamentals of common provisioning, which the gift of land makes available to all those willing to work it, have been continually whittled away in the name of profit. 

Some might question giving Berry even this much credit when it comes to his dealings with race, pointing to the sympathy he expresses towards Robert E. Lee in the book, and his dislike of those who attribute some kind of genetic trauma to any depiction or memorialization of those Southerners who fought for an understandable yet still evil cause from 1861 to 1865. All this attracted a fair amount of criticism when the book came out in 2022, and I’m not entirely unsympathetic to it. But an understanding of how Berry grounds his overall argument in the requirements of membership and community-building work should enable open-minded readers, I think, to see that he’s not minimizing the horrors of slavery when he shows some contextual sympathy for those born into its web of enveloping prejudices. Rather, he's extending the tragedy of those horrors and the devastation they justified, situating all Americans in the same destructive shadow that slaves and their masters were implicated in alike. 

He does this by way of an impressively wide rage of arguments, including a thoughtful consideration of the Sermon on the Mount, a critical reading a Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a reflection on the origin of Kentucky's state anthem, "My Own Kentucky Home," and much more. But the clearest elaboration of his entwining of moral, environmental, and socio-economic themes in his treatment of race in America comes through the lengthy consideration he gives to a conversation with the famed defender of both white supremacy and states’ rights, John C. Caulhoun, recorded in the dairy of John Quincy Adams in 1820—a conversation which Berry calls “essential to the sense of this book." He writes:

Calhoun’s significant distinction is between work that is not degrading, and therefore suitable for white people, and degrading work fit only for slaves. Adams defines the trouble exactly—“mistaking labor for slavery, and domination for Freedom”—and he clearly thought that the trouble affected both races….By assigning specifically to slaves the manual work considered degrading, the slave-owning aristocrats degraded that work for everybody, black or white, who did it. By degrading the work, they degraded the workers….It became possible for people who could not escape hard manual labor to despise themselves for doing it, and, from that, possible to despise the land that required it of them. Thus the set of values and attitudes by which the Old South aristocrats placed themselves above the fundamental work of the world in their time, values and attitudes meant to define the superiority of a class, instituted a (so far) illimitable cycle of degradations. It degraded the fundamental work itself, in both status and quality. It degraded everybody, black and white, who did that work. And inevitably—provided that the workers consented to the aristocratic values and attitudes—it degraded the land on which the work was done….

In his argument with Calhoun, Adams was speaking in affirmation of the value to the country and to democracy of “the plain freemen who labor for subsistence,” presumably on their own farms or in their own shops. Calhoun, speaking self-consciously as an aristocrat and in defense of his class and its values, divides human life and work into the permanent grades of higher and lower. (He clearly could have granted no standing to Jefferson’s “aristocracy of talent and virtue,” with which Adams might have concurred, though he did not like Jefferson.) Perhaps the greatest irony of our history so far is that in our public life we have favored and democratized Calhoun’s values and pointedly disfavored Adams’s….We all, black and white together, want to be John C. Calhoun….

The superiority of Calhoun’s social class rested upon Negro slavery—which, if we understand slavery as the lack or the want of freedom, was only one kind of slavery…Consumers of industrial products participate in the industrial economy virtually as captives, because of their total dependence on the products, and because of their lack of responsibility for the quality of what they buy. The condition of industrial consumers is of a piece with the condition of industrial workers, who are captives of the “labor market” and their need for jobs, and who have no responsibility for the kind and quality of their products….Slavery did not begin with the capture and sale of African black people, and it did not end with their legal emancipation (pp. 298-300, 301-302, 374).

In retrospect, much of Berry’s meandering book is revealed as an explicit exploration of the many and perverse ways the “democratization” of Calhoun’s aristocratic prejudices have deeply warped American social and economic life. In his view (and mine as well), without consistently prioritizing a participatory, democratic, egalitarian respect for work--including both those who do the work, and the land upon which they do it--one will be invariably left with a divisive competition to separate oneself from manual labor, and a greedy desire to impose on those you have separated yourself from to make sure they continue to do it for you. While there have occasionally been successful efforts to arrange and maintain the environments within with such work can flourish throughout American history, Berry mourns how rare they have been. Rather than the ideal of seeking common membership in a particular context of work—the “American Dream” of “economic democracy,” of “self-sufficiency based upon ownership of a family farm or ‘forty acres and a mule’ or a small store or a small shop” (p. 98)—we have a public realm that “is not, except in the most remote and theoretical sense, a membership…. It is nobody’s home … the realm of extremely powerful, wealthy, childish, and badly spoiled adult humans typified by Mr. Trump, his allies, and his rivals” (p. 136). Why this Calhounian triumph, in Berry’s view? Well, at one point he observes that human beings are “most at peace with one another when they are reasonably prosperous” (p. 87). That might seem a brief and materialist aside, but it is echoed in dozens of similar asides throughout the book, when he remarks on the fecundity of well-respected land, on how even oppressed populations (including the slaves of the American South) could find some degree of independence through the natural provisions that wise observers could obtain from said land, and so forth. When one reflects upon the common resources that lay at the heart of prosperity, and how capitalist expansion throughout history consistently begins with robbing the people of those common resources, economic explanations emerge as a framework for understanding how all the divisive and racist prejudices which Berry is exploring take root.

Ian Angus’s The War Against the Commons: Dispossession and Resistance in the Making of Capitalism is a short and dense book, one which lays out in close detail both the centuries-old tradition of commons-based agriculture through most of human history (Angus’s research is explicitly focused on the development of expansionist capitalism in England, the United Kingdom, and its imperial territories, but it is clear that similar data patterns can be found around world), and the way that tradition came to an end. Many are at least vaguely familiar with the story of the “enclosure movement”—the repeated, and always expanding, efforts by aristocrats and early capitalists from the Middle Ages through the 18th century to dispossess the peasants who farmed, hunted and gathered in, and provisioned their families and villages from the streams, forests, and fields that they may have had any nominal ownership of, but by centuries-old common law had access to. Leveling woods to establish fenced in sheep pastures, leveling homes to oblige those who lived there to hire themselves out as laborers in cities—the sociological and economic consequences of the history of enclosures have been debated (and, depressingly often, defended) for centuries, with Angus’s Marxist analysis being just the latest contribution of the argument (though an excellent one). I strongly doubt that Berry and Angus are at all aware of each others’ writings; yet, Angus’s argument about the centrality of dispossession to understanding the roots of imperialism and slavery enables me to see their work as complementing each other in a small but essential way.

In a way, it’s not a Marxist argument at all, but one that goes back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Second Discourse: all the pathologies of division and competition which plague humankind, according to him, begin with “the first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, said to himself, This is mine." But Rousseau’s philosophical jeremiad against economic inequality and private property is hardly a rigorous argument—and it certainly isn’t Berry’s, or Angus’s (or even, when you think about it, Marx’s either, as he was far more concerned with bringing to an end exploitation than he was with imposing any kind of propertyless economic sameness; he and Friedrich Engels explicitly stated in The Communist Manifesto that it was property employed in the process of bourgeois production, not personal property, which they were targeting). What Marx, and Angus’s use of Marx’s analytic framework, actually provides in this context is simply an understanding that dispossession—using competitive acquisition, whether legal or financial or military, to end the common access to landed resources which communities had for millennia learned (and sometimes, in some places, still do learn) to share and shepherd together—was and remains at the heart of creating the economic disruptions upon which plantation slavery in the American South, and so many other forms of economic imperialism today, were and are maintained. Angus’s quotes Marx, who in this light sounds downright Berryesque (though, unfortunately, not nearly as lyrical):

Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e., it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil….Capitalist production, therefore only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker (pp. 186-187).

Marx’s opinion about agriculture’s place in his vision of the historical inevitability of a workers' revolution is complicated. It is easy to assume that the above passage is merely descriptive of what he saw as an economically determined process, but there are also notes and letters from Marx (which Angus quotes at length) which reveal that Marx himself recognized the social power of the cooperative relations which existed among farmers and other small-holders, where the mutually sustaining and shared commons had not yet been absorbed in the name of elite profit. This, obviously, open up the possibility for a socialist conception of property and community that is leans in a more localist, republican, or anarchist direction, and decidedly away from the Marxist-Leninist assumption that overcoming capitalism can only be achieved through forcing workers--dictatorially, in necessary--down the path of industrial socialization.

But either way, seeing in Marx’s observations above a parallel to Berry’s concern about how economic competition introduces class distinctions, which in turn introduce a contempt for the economically poor or legally enslaved who are obliged to engage in manual labor on the land, and thus result in a degradation of all landed work as well as the land itself, isn’t difficult. Hence, my original description of The Need to Be Whole as a leftist lament. The kind of respectful and cooperative and forgiving communities of work and fair membership that Berry locates in the civil religion of America, as well as within the Christian vision, were (and still are being) undermined, with depressing rare exceptions, by the legacy of labor degradation and slavery, America’s original sin. That legacy was most prominently and destructively embodied in the chattel slavery of the American South, but it is tragically more accurately reflected in the acquisitive stifling—both at the beginning of the American experiment and today--of the “land need,” the “sensible need for independence” which common resources provide, a need expressed by “early settlers and freed slaves” alike, and which is felt today by anyone who wishes, as they search the want-ads and punch the clock, “not to be a starvling, a pauper, a scrounger, an underling, a peon, a slave” (p. 365). For us all to be economically free and respected by our fellow human beings, free of prejudices that stigmatize and separate us from one another and from the land and from the labor of our own hands, and for there thus to be no truly poor among us—what could be more leftist than that?


ken sasucke said...

Just read this @FP, thanks.I probably will never get aroind to reading Marx,, so thankyou.I could critique the premise s left/right is bout as useful as Rousseau's theory of property.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I actually don't think Rousseau's theory of property is useless; instead I would say, "mostly without any practical guidance for us today," which I don't think is the same thing as "useless." Your mileage may vary, of course. I think the same thing bout the left/right distinction: I do think it is helpful on the level of ideas and theory, but insofar as anything politically actionable goes, there's not much there. So we're probably more in agreement than not. Thanks for the comment!