What is Agrarianism?

January 22, 2018

This is the first part of a series I am writing about land ethics, Agrarianism, and how we should think about the places we live. -Garth

The people who live on a piece of land will have the best idea of how to use it. The particulars of geography, climate, fertility, and human aims are all so variable and interconnected that good management must be immediately informed by them. Any top down, bureaucratic administration, however well meaning, can never be responsive enough to account for the needs of each place and each community.

These ideas have a common sense appeal, and if you like them you’re in good company. In Politics Aristotle says that people (by which he means male landowners) must personally know each others’ characters and circumstances if they are to have the best sort of democracy. The right amount of land collectively governed by the right number of people “will enable the inhabitants to live a life of liberal and at the same time temperate leisure.”

Cato takes it a step further, claiming that “it is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come” and that “their calling is most highly respected.” To be fair, the only two other occupations he mentions are trading and usury, so perhaps he would not be so enamored of the agricultural life if there had been a wider range of career options in his time. Maybe if he were alive today he would point to thought leaders or social media influencers as the backbone of a healthy society.

And this points to an important consideration to keep in mind when thinking about the politics of farming. From the invention of agriculture until quite recently most people have had to work the land for it to produce enough food. While power could be consolidated in a city, the populace would necessarily be mostly rural. Only when industrialism and simultaneous advances in farming increased both the food one person could produce and the demand for labor did the conditions exist for agrarianism to arise.

This is because agrarianism, at least as we usually understand it, is conservative. It can be either political or social in its focus - usually both - but it is defined as much by what it opposes as what it promotes. As with most any term that aims to sum up a complex ideology, there could be endless arguments about what agrarianism truly means, but it has a few fundamental themes - that technological advances do not inevitably improve the quality of human lives, that small, self-determined communities are superior to complex bureaucracies, that the local practices that develop over time in a particular place will usually be better than new, external ways of doing things. Underlying all of these is the claim that close contact with the land, particularly in the form of agriculture, is the fullest form a human life can take.

Put more simply, agrarianism argues that the best way for people to live is on farms in a country of mostly farmers, and that this arrangement will make the world pretty awesome. There will be fairer political representation, citizens will have strong moral character, and both the land and those in need will be cared for by the immediate community.

This all sounds pretty good, if a little unrealistic, particularly in a country that is as fully industrial and urban as America. But while it’s unlikely that either political party is about to embrace a truly agrarian program, ideals that have strains of agrarianism abound. Shop local. Know your farmer, know your food. Raise your own vegetables and chickens. (And sheep and pigs if you’re ambitious!) Join a CSA. Fight regulations that put the squeeze on small producers. Needless to say, I endorse more or less all of these. But in future posts  we will see that reactionary rage, xenophobia, parochialism, and explicit racism are just as intertwined with agrarian thought as any idea about preserving the land and the people who care for it.

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