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Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

Berry’s economic program, what he calls the “little economy,” is a smaller wheel in the larger motion of the “Great Economy.” To understand the former, it is vital to grasp the latter. In the following, then, Berry’s vision of the broader drama of human action is set forth, followed by a presentation of his narrower economic agenda. Finally, these are followed up with an evaluation and critique. The conclusion is that Berry has insight, trenchant observations we ignore at our peril, and a practical program of economic action. But like the hero in an ancient tragedy, these strengths are flawed and weakened by a metaphysical dream that could arguably replace one inhumanity with another.In an age yet devoted to avarice and increasing material consumption, Wendell Berry continues to fight a rearguard action for a better way of life. His program of the economy is explicitly wedded to a broader philosophy of how life should be lived…and that is as it should be. Even mainstream economists, and all those bowing to the Baal of endless GDP growth and agonizing in rabid foams of what British economist E.J. Mishan has called “quanto-mania,” also have their vision of life, though they are less inclined to admit it, leaving the sensitive reader of strict theory to tease it out on his own.

The reader should also note that these observations are derived strictly from the body of material dealing with economic questions considered here and may not necessarily coincide with perspectives Mr. Berry has expressed in other works, his poetry or novels, for example. Whether these apparently conflicting views can be reconciled, or whether the author has changed his opinion, or is simply ambivalent is beyond the scope of this paper.

The Problem: Dark, Satanic Mills

Our present industrial economy is diseased in many ways. It is ecologically destructive, bringing toxic wastes to land and air, destroying plant and animal life, and causing soil erosion. This much is the familiar theme of the modern environmental movement, treated in detail in many ways in Berry’s writings. But more than that, the present economic system also wounds our humanity. It separates producer from consumer, undermines families and neighborhoods, and alienates us from local history and geography, dimensions of existence, reflected even within the economy in the manner in which we earn and eat our daily bread, that fulfill deeper needs. The industrial economy promises satisfaction but delivers dissatisfaction. It promises a brighter future but delivers to us a darker, more frustrating one. With each failure of the industrial economy it promises more of the same process, in homeopathic blindness. The lust to dominate nature and to have greater quantities of shoddily made products are its chief features propagated to the public in a battery of familiar numbers about rising output, employment figures, and rates of inflation. He writes:

The industrial economy requires the extreme specialization of work – the separation of work from its results — because it subsists upon divisions of interest and must deny the fundamental kinships of producer and consumer; seller and buyer; owner and worker; worker, work, and product; parent material and product; nature and artifice; thoughts, words, and deeds. (Berry, 2002, 235)

Elsewhere, he adds:

The scarcity of satisfaction makes of our many commodities, in fact, an infinite series of commodities, the new commodities invariably promising greater satisfaction than the older ones. And so we can say that the industrial economy’s most–marketed commodity is satisfaction, and that this commodity, which is repeatedly promised, bought, and paid for, is never delivered. (Berry, 2002, 236)

And again:

We have got to remember that the great destructiveness of the industrial age comes from a division, a sort of divorce, in our economy, and therefore in our consciousness, between production and consumption. Of this radical division of functions we can say, without much fear of oversimplifying, that the aim of producers is to sell as much as possible and that the aim of consumers is to buy as much as possible. We need only to add that the aim of both producer and consumer is to be so far as possible carefree. (Berry, 2002, 246)

It is this irresponsible action on the part of both consumers and producers that has delivered us into the paradoxical situation of a world with more goods and services and less basic simple human happiness.

The fundamental reason for this is the conflict between human economic institutions and the ecology. In his words, the problem with the “human household” is that it is at almost every point in conflict with the “household of nature.” And that conflict arises in large part because the human household has taken the form of the modern corporation for they have the power to act in carefree, irresponsible ways. Corporate behavior and those, including individual consumers, who are under the influence of corporate behavior, have delivered us into the present environmental crisis. The ongoing perception of nature as nothing but raw material useful to satisfy any appetite is basic to this behavior. (Berry, 2003, 63-64)

In a manner reminiscent of Irving Babbitt, Berry characterizes the modern economy as “sentimental.” It promises that we must all make sacrifices to our happiness now for benefits in the future, but for a future that never really arrives. (Berry, 2003, 65) According to Berry, the only future good that we can be sure capitalism will produce is that “it will destroy itself.” The continuous destruction of the real economy of the household and the local community in favor of the “symbolic economy of money” manipulated by the controlling interest of big business is not sustainable. We find ourselves in the uncomfortable situation of “unprecedented ‘prosperity’ and ‘economic growth’ in a land of degraded farms, forests, ecosystems, and watersheds, polluted air, failing families, and perishing communities.” (Berry, 2003, 66) Workers from land-economies face depressed wages; they are enticed into the cities which further keep wages low and, of course, the continuous introduction of labor-saving technology does the same; agricultural prices are low and encourage overproduction, and to make up the loss of revenue farmers increase the volume of production which only lowers prices further. (Berry, 2003, 67-68) In fact, the process of ruthless exploitation of nature is nothing more than the natural result of competition. In the pursuit of profits, competitive free markets simply become in the long run, a warfare. In American history, this warfare first manifested itself in colonial exploitation, then in our own domestic exploitation, and now it is seen in global exploitation. (Berry, 2003, 68-69; cf. 2002, 262-264)

The folly began in establishing the corporation as a legal person. It encourages irresponsible behavior for in his eyes, it “is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance.” (Berry, 2003, 69) Such an entity is inhuman for it does not age; it does not participate in the shortness of human life; it cannot humble itself; it has no hope or remorse; it experiences no change of heart. Instead, he writes, “It goes about its business as if it were immortal, with the single purpose of becoming a bigger pile of money.” (Berry, 2003, 70) He then proceeds to indict corporations with a list if 14 charges or assumptions which are self-evidently false. Among these it is interesting to note that in his view the industrial economy is characterized by an indifference to the loss of vocation as a real calling, which is replaced by whatever one can get paid to do; by the loss of stable relationships among people, places and things; and by the belief that cultures and religions have no legitimate economic concerns. Such an economy is very nearly cannibalistic, feeding itself by taking unrestrained profits “from the disintegration of nations, communities, households, landscapes, and ecosystems. It licenses symbolic or artificial wealth to ‘grow’ by means of the destruction of the real wealth of all the world.” (Berry, 2003, 72)

Corporations behave this way because we have made competition a virtue and a ruling principle. But this is a false approach. Competition in the context of the assumption of maximum profits with minimum responsibility is a race to the bottom leading to criminal behavior. This situation “explains why it is so difficult for us to draw a line between ‘free enterprise’ and crime…People who pay for shoddy products or careless services and people who are robbed outright are equally victims of theft, the only difference being that the robbers outright are not guilty of fraud.” (Berry, 2002, 233) The corporation is the avatar of greed in the grip of competition.

Overall, it is a withering and forceful manifesto of corporate and economic ills.

The Solution: The Great and Little Economies

The solution to these evils begins with understanding the context within which man’s economy operates. Production, exchange, and consumption are activities dependent upon the larger social and natural world. This broader stage can be called the “Kingdom of God” or equally well the “Tao.” “[W]e can name it whatever we wish,” he writes, “ but we cannot define it except by way of a religious tradition.” (Berry, 2002, 221) We may also call it the Great Economy which he explains “is both known and unknown, visible and invisible, comprehensible and mysterious. It is, thus, the ultimate condition of our experience and of the practical questions rising from our experience, and it imposes on our consideration of those questions an extremity of seriousness and an extremity of humility.” (Berry, 2002, 221) The Great Economy includes “principles and patterns by which values or powers or necessities are parceled out and exchanged.” (Berry, 2002, 221) It is all-embracing and comprehends humans “and thus cannot be fully comprehended by them.” (Berry, 2002, 221) Humans can live in this economy only with “great uneasiness” for they are subject to its laws and powers but are not able fully to understand them. (Berry, 2002, 221) In some important ways the little economy of the narrower sort must be an analogue of the Great Economy and must fit harmoniously into it and correspond to it. For one thing the little economy of human action “defines and values human goods, and, like the Great Economy, it conserves and protects its goods. It proposes to endure. Like the Great Economy, a good human economy does not propose for itself a term to be set by humans. That termlessness, with all its implied human limits and restraints, is a human good.” (Berry, 2002, 224) While the little economy requires us to calculate, manipulate and use factual knowledge, “our participation in the Great Economy also requires those things, but requires as well humility, sympathy, forbearance, generosity, imagination.” (Berry, 2002, 224) The Great Economy originates primary values, though what these are is not perfectly clear — he seems to refer to nature, trees, land, wildlife, topsoil, all of our natural resources, the basic given world — while the little economy “originates, manages, and distributes” only secondary values which mainly deal with husbandry and trusteeship. The little economy must also “make continuously available those values that are primary or given.” (Berry, 2002, 225)

This relationship between the great and little economies explains why competition cannot be a ruling principle: the smaller economy receives its motion from the larger one. Ultimately, the losses afflict the winner, too, so that we cannot separate the one side from the other. There are, in fact, no sides. It is a seamless whole. “Competitiveness,” he insists, “cannot be the ruling principle, for the Great Economy is not a ‘side’ that we can join nor are there such ‘sides’ within it.” Instead, we are all members joined to one another and “indebted to each other, receiving significance and worth from each other and from the whole.” (Berry, 2002, 233) We are asked in the New Testament to consider the lilies of the field because they are our “fellow members” in this world and because as such “we and the lilies are in certain critical ways alike.” (Berry, 2002, 233)

The traditional virtues he understands to be rather abstract and general and therefore insufficient. Real neighborliness, his primary virtue, is concrete and particular. In this he follows William Blake’s admonition to “Labor well the Minute Particulars.” And if we extend the meaning of “virtue” to include “virtuosity” we become still more concrete and practical. When such virtues as technical skills are rightly practiced in the Great Economy they are not called virtues; indeed, they are scarcely discernable as such and run under another name: “we do not call them virtues,” he writes, “we call them good farming, good forestry, good carpentry, good husbandry, good weaving and sewing, good homemaking, good parenthood, good neighborhood, and so on.” (Berry, 2002, 234) The Great Economy helps the little economy minutely particularize the virtues, carries them into practice. When this occurs, we escape from the evils of specialization. At the end of the day there is no escaping from the Great Economy; we are its members whether we like it or not. We are engaged in ways of doing and knowing that can’t be divided from themselves or each other and which “speak the common language of the communities where they are practiced.” (Berry, 2002, 235) Using E.F. Schumacher’s phrase, he argues that the new ideal of the small economy must be “‘the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.’” (Berry, 2002, 223)

When it comes down to the specifics of the local economy and the small economy, Berry speaks of agrarianism. What does it entail? The agrarian economy means local self-sufficiency in so far as it is practicable; it means the small-scale land owner pursuing economic independence. It is know-how about caretaking being handed down to children; it is the belief that it is important to preserve communities, and families. It means the care in the use of such small land holdings; it means that political democracy rests on economic democracy. (Berry, 2002, 240) “The agrarian mind begins with the love of fields and ramifies in good farming, good cooking, good eating, and gratitude to God…The industrial-economic mind begins with ingratitude, and ramifies in the destruction of farms and forests.” (Berry, 2002, 241)

We cannot look to the past for good examples of agrarianism since the past has been corrupted by various forms of exploitation. Berry believes,

We never yet have developed stable, sustainable, locally adapted land-based economies. The good rural enterprises and communities that we will find in our past have been almost constantly under threat from the colonialism, first foreign and then domestic and now ‘global,’ which has so far dominated our history, and which has been institutionalized for a long time in the industrial economy. The possibility of an authentically settled country still lies ahead of us. (Berry, 2002, 242)

This excludes colonial and early American farming in the North and the South and later in the West. Presumably, not being “locally adapted” means that such “rural enterprises” geared their farming to include exports, cotton to England and later wheat to the world. Such farming is, then, not a good example of agrarian life. That example lies in the future.

That future is already being worked for. Local economists and local patriots, “decentralizers and downsizers” are working for an “appropriate degree of self- determination and independence for localities.” (Berry, 2002, 243) The agrarian future will include cities and manufacturing, but manufacturing should be local, fitted to its landscape, ecosystem and community. It will also be locally owned and employ local people. The owner should be local and live in the community where his manufacturing is done to share its fate. (Berry, 2002, 244)

Berry is asking for nothing less than a “revolt of local small producers and local consumers against the global industrialism of the corporations.” This revolt is already happening as people are revolted at the treatment of animals and at other aspects of agribusiness. Organic farms are thriving in the form of “community-supported agriculture,” plus health food stores and farmers’ markets flourish, to name just a few common instances of this economic revolt. (Berry, 2002, 245)

Elsewhere, in speaking of economic policies that reduce people’s security, independence, and freedom, such as concentrations of wealth and property and the flood of cheap imports, Berry argues people must take matters into their own hands. “If the government does not propose to protect the lives, the livelihoods, and the freedoms of its people, then the people must think about protecting themselves.” (Berry, 2003, 73)

The current experience is driving people out of the pigeon holes of consumers and producers and into the “categories of citizen, family member, and community member, in all of which we have an inescapable interest in making things last.” (Berry, 2002, 246-7) The allies of agrarianism lie in all those people and organizations that are trying to preserve something, not just wilderness areas or family farms, but scenic roads, historic sites and buildings, and local schools. There is no necessary conflict among these people; they have the same enemies as conservationists and possess an “essential likeness” in motives and concerns. (Berry, 2002, 246-7)

These natural allies need to come together to produce that proper, true agrarian model.The partial successes and incomplete or imperfect examples are not enough. Whether in forestry, farming, or ranching, we are to “foster and study working models” that demonstrate good economic practices which are ecologically sound and suited to the local food economies. (Berry, 2002, 247-8)

Berry expresses two principles that summarize his idea of a local economy. They are neighborhood and subsistence. In a viable neighborhood, people try to provide for one another according to what they and their place can afford. “This…is the practice of neighborhood,” he writes recognizing it must also be economic as well as charitable, adding that “the economic part must be equitable; there is a significant charity in just prices.” (Berry, 2003, 74-5)

He then expands his meaning of subsistence, which is to produce as much as possible locally while cherishing and protecting the community’s productive capacities. Of course, he recognizes that not everything can be made locally. But even after admitting this, he insists on six conditions a viable community will meet; it:

1.  does not import products it can produce itself;

2.  considers the economic products as belonging to the community and are either subsistence or surplus;

3.  allows only the surplus to be marketed abroad;

4.  does not allow production solely for export;

5.  does not permit importers to use cheap labor and goods from other places so as to protect the local productive capacity; and,

6.  refuses to import goods made at the cost of human or ecological degradation elsewhere. (Berry, 2003, 75)

This sort of protectionism is reasonable but is not isolationist for “[t]he principle of neighborhood at home always implies the principle of charity abroad. And the principle of subsistence is in fact the best guarantee of giveable or marketable surpluses.” (Berry, 2003, 75)

Evaluation and Critique

Berry gives a passionate plea for a more humane, simpler economy rooted in a profound affection and respect for the environment. This will be better for families and communities, healthier mentally, spiritually and physically for individuals and will involve more genuine freedom, independence, and satisfaction than the economy of industrial aggressiveness controlled by large corporations which can think only of maximizing short term profits. The vision is appealing to those who believe in small communities, neighborliness, and love of nature. But how well does his vision stand up to scrutiny philosophically and economically?

Philosophically, while Berry may politely quote from the Bible, his overall exposition suggests the real motivating framework for his Great Economy is a monistic naturalism with Eastern overtones. His view is not metaphysical in the literal sense, for there is nothing beyond nature which is to be the standard of human conduct. The relativism of the age, he argues, is escaped when we realize that our actions should be in harmony with her; otherwise they will be destructive. For the agrarian, “there is a continually recurring affirmation of nature as the final judge, law-giver, and pattern-maker of and for the human use of the earth…we should honor Nature not only as our mother or grandmother, but as our teacher and judge…” (Berry, 2002, 240) In a healthy economy he also argues that “nature will become the standard of work and production.” (Berry, 2002, 244) Elsewhere, he believes that health, broadly understood, is the one absolute good whose recognition provides escape from relativism (Berry, 1977, 222). And, of course, the “termlessness” which the Great Economy imposes on man’s little economy is a way of saying that nature’s demands on man are ultimately without condition or absolute. With such remarks, it is surely understandable for a reader to conclude that Mr. Berry’s thinking here inclines to an immanent wholism: the economy of the Tao refers to a self-contained Nature — than which nothing greater exists — the whole of which is expressed through and in each and every one of its interdependent parts. (This is a familiar viewpoint which he shares with others influenced by Eastern thought: one thinks of Emerson, for example.)

The unity which naturalistic wholism necessarily achieves not surprisingly suggests an egalitarian view of human society. If the whole is contained in all the parts, all parts are in that respect equal; indeed, the distinction between parts and whole is blurred. Such thinking is also evident in Berry’s treatment of Christ’s illustration of the lilies of the field mentioned above, for, according to Berry, the mere fact that they are “fellow members” in the great world makes them like man in certain important ways. We are not detailed what these ways are but since “fellow members” derive significance and worth from each other as well as from the whole, and are “inextricably joined to each other,” and “indebted to each other”(Berry, 2002, 233), “fellow members” can reasonably be understood to mean “equal” members.

His treatment would be more balanced by considering familiar Christian concepts that imply hierarchy: man’s God–given dominion over creation (Psalm 8), or Paul’s treatment of hierarchical membership (1 Corinthians 12). In the case of the lilies of the field, it is surely the implicit recognition of superior and inferior that is the point of Christ’s comparison: if God takes care of the lower creatures, he will certainly take care of the disciples. But in Berry’s treatment wholism is horizontal, not vertical; there is nothing pulling upward to the transcendent.

This same egalitarian horizontalism leads to a blurring of gender roles. Though he uses the word elsewhere, it is noteworthy that in The Unsettling of America, the role of the farmer as “husbandman” is explicitly rejected along with traditional sexual roles. He favors, rather hermaphroditically, calling the farmer a “nurturer” whose job is actually “half mother” in order to care for the farm. “The nurturer…has always passed with ease across the boundaries of the so-called sexual roles,” he asserts. “Of necessity and without apology, the preserver of seed, the planter, becomes midwife and nurse. Breeder is always metamorphosing into brooder and back again.” (Berry, 1977, 8; cf. 112-116) That caring for family and farm may have a masculine form, such as biblical images of men as providers and protectors, is not considered.

Because man does not ultimately transcend nature, is totally immersed in it, conceptualization, definition, and naming are not favorably viewed for they alienate man from the world. The preference here is to merge man with nature in a semi-conscious state through his work, work in and conforming to nature where conceptualization is to be kept to a minimum. When definition is needed, it is to be accomplished by practice rather than by thought, by the hands rather than by the head. At times it would seem that he wants a Burkean “wisdom above reflection,” or a defining without thinking. Practice substitutes for metaphysics.

Two examples illustrate the point. First, agrarianism is mainly a practice and an idea only in a secondary sense “and at a remove.” Berry never heard agrarianism defined, he says, or even named, until he was a sophomore in college. But in treating of this topic, he reluctantly proceeds to define what he means though cautiously for he is aware of the danger of “defining things.” (Berry, 2002, 238) Presumably, the danger in definition is that it makes the subject matter too abstract and agrarianism, he insists, “can never become abstract because it has to be practiced in order to exist.” (Berry, 2002, 239)

Secondly, Berry devalues traditional virtues. They are seen as abstractions which, though having some value in a neighborhood, cannot really be practiced as such but only occasionally. “For a human, the good choice in the Great Economy is to see its membership as a neighborhood and oneself as a neighbor within it…Temperance has no appearance or action of its own, nor does justice, prudence, fortitude, faith, hope, or charity. They can only be employed on occasions.” (Berry, 2002, 234) Can we really believe traditional virtues can only be practiced…occasionally? It is difficult to understand him to mean that virtue merely requires the occasion for its practice. Every day is a continuous occasion to practice the virtues. Apparently he has something else in mind, namely, that “membership” alone is the dominant “virtue” for we all belong to each other in the neighborhood which belongs to the Great Economy of the Tao. Even more telling, Berry relies on Lao Tse’s famous dictum that to discuss virtues, to name and define them, is actually indicative of their loss: we speak of honesty and love and of good and benevolent fathers and dutiful sons only when the family ties are weakened. (Berry, 2002, 234)

What is needed, Berry argues, is a shift from “virtue toward virtuosity” or from the specialized traditional virtues to the particular skills which alone truly accomplish good things. It is the laboring of William Blake’s “Minute Particulars” that alone will do for any practical good, and these are invested by the economy of the Tao with “high and final importance.” We are told again that “each part stands for the whole and is joined to it; the whole is present in the part and is its health.” Our present human economy, however, is merely an adding up of fragments “to an ever-fugitive wholeness,” whereas a healthy economy and way of life involve the concrete practice of the good where “[t]he general principles are submerged in the particularities of their engagement with the world.” (Berry, 2002, 234) It is as if work substitutes for virtue and that the latter almost automatically follows in the wake of the former. Be a good carpenter and the traditional virtues will follow because of immanent wholism. Like the definition of agrarianism, the idea is secondary and at a remove; it is practice that truly counts. But clearly, a good carpenter may yet be a scoundrel!

In thinking this way Berry is not as far removed from modern economic theory as he might like to believe. Like virtuosity, the pursuit of (the minute particulars of) self-interest produces (the virtue of) a social good. (We may call Berry’s version the “doctrine of unintended virtue.”) We focus on the margin of technical skill to accomplish the traditional virtues. In The Unsettling of America he explicitly insists on a marginalist viewpoint, not emphasized in later writings. By margins, Berry refers to that biodiversity which helps ecosystem stability and farming. But also he elevates this to a virtual philosophy of culture, religion, and politics for he wants marginal persons, marginal places, marginal humanity and a marginal way of thinking. The marginal is opposed to the orthodox or the central whether in business, religion or history. And yet the focus on the peripheral leads him into a consistent pattern of misinterpreting these same matters. (Berry, 1977, 171-223; esp. 173, 189-191)

Modern orthodox theory also focuses on achieving maximum outcome of benefits and profits by attention paid to the marginal actions of participants. Marginal analysis is the bread and butter of the economist’s thinking. He is concerned to weigh the additional (that is, marginal) costs with the additional benefits of any act whether in consumption or production. The attention is on small additional changes that decision makers face. (Of course, there is no hint of immanent wholism in marginal analysis.)

In mainstream economics, the marginal is sometimes seen as the Darwinian incremental change that is supposedly always testing the environment ready to expand its own population if conditions permit. The entrepreneur or enterprise in the context of competition is envisioned as doing the same thing. Within Berry’s own vision of evolutionary change, this marginalist emphasis could be seen as vindicating the industrial economy as the new stage of human economic development. In that context, his emphasis on the permanent and enduring is curious, if not contradictory; cosmogony and policy. How could “Nature” produce a creature and economic system so wholly out of harmony with Herself?

For the worker this marginalism means narrow specialization in the division of labor. Berry rightly joins those critics of the modern industrial economy who point out the alienation workers experience in doing minute, repetitive, unfulfilling tasks, and being treated as though they were raw material in the productive process. Though not always clear, he presumably means excessive specialization is detrimental to the individual’s character, to “community wholeness” and “personal wholeness” (Berry, 1977, 19ff.). But among agrarian-based local economies and communities, why is economic interdependence bad and environmental interdependence good when both arise from their respective specializations? Without the requisite talent, skills, or resources, self-reliance is agony. Specialization in those areas one is suited for followed by trade is a great remedy. Just as Berry wants to adapt the local community to its environment, a form of specialization, so, too, adjusting the individual’s work to his talent is also a good principle, just as male and female differences are specializations based on differentiations which are a part of God’s order in creation, just as ecosystem diversity which figures largely in his thinking is also a form of specialization. Some forms and degrees of specialization are quite fulfilling. Whenever a good workman sees the transcending ideal in his task properly embodied in the results of his work, he experiences satisfaction. It elevates the work from the natural to the spiritual world.

Neighborliness, community, and undefined principles “submerged” in unreflective practice will not suffice for the real world. The postulated oneness arising from this immanent wholism obscures conflict. In Lao Tse’s world, conflict is removed by returning to the natural goodness of the Tao. But in the Christian view, man’s spiritual neighbors and community are often not the same as his physical ones, the distinction which agrarian Richard Weaver (1948, 32-33) referred to as the difference between the metaphysical and empirical communities. Empirically, geographically and economically, “neighbors” may be a part of the same community but metaphysically there may be a world of difference. It is a difference that stems from man’s own nature, of being both spiritual and physical and in his former capacity partially transcending the natural world, being capable of committing evil and alienating himself from his neighbors, nature, and God. Next to neighborliness will be ambition and envy, next to generosity will be greed and materialism. These will not go away in an agrarian society.

Nor is it clear how well such communities will thrive in the genuine sense he rightfully means when next to the traditional family, there is the organic goat farm run by two lesbians. How are decisions in the community to be made about schools and teaching content: that homosexuality is abnormal (unnatural) and a sin or just another life-style (Where is nature our teacher here? Or is this the “natural” outworking of the hermaphroditic view mentioned above?) These issues severely separate people and hinder community neighborliness so that the traditional family may find itself identifying more readily with a Christian family in India, than with its neighbors down the road. It is precisely because man is not of nature (i.e., not entirely as explained above) that nature cannot serve as a complete model for his behavior; he does not take his pattern from her. And that is what is missing in Berry’s assessment and prescription. Nature and physical nearness do not substitute for a binding, transcendent faith.

We cannot approach nature without bringing some views or ideas about nature with us. And it is these ideas that define agrarianism and our judgements about nature. There is no such thing as a completely natural approach to nature or of appealing to nature as a final judge for “nature” will involve our conceptualization of her, the ideas we bring to her, our judgements about her.

The concept of “nature” itself partakes of that abstraction which Berry so dislikes. For what is meant by the word except everything in the physical world? When he does refer to specific aspects of nature, he is referring also to human purposes, not merely to “nature”. And these purposes are not derivable from the physical world. Building roads, cutting down trees, or planting orchards are examples of the dialectic between nature and supernature, between the physical world and the world of human purposes which is the very heart of “work.” Work cannot be submerged into nature.

Nor can theory or abstract idea be totally submerged in practice or be secondary and at a remove. To practice any good work, one must be aware of some principle defining it and bring that principle down to the particulars. Berry himself as farmer and author gives numerous examples of this from the care of topsoil to the use of draft animals. Again, when he tries to show the harmony between the traditional conservation movement and other preservation efforts, he does so by relying on their “essential likeness” — an abstract quality or same basic idea the understanding of which is necessary for any policy alliance. This does not mean a farmer, or any other good worker, has to write an academic dissertation on the matter, but it is vital for him to have a clear conception of what he is trying to do. One can only imagine that it is his wholistic philosophy with its Eastern influences that lies behind his reluctance to pursue what should be a straightforward effort at conceptual clarity. (If he does not intend the reader to conclude this, he needs to take a different tack and make himself clear.)

Lack of clarity also leads to problems in the more narrowly understood case of economic policy, as seen in one of Berry’s own examples. Speaking of a case from Albert Schweitzer, described sometimes as a “poetical ethical pantheist”, Berry writes:

‘Whenever the timber trade is good, permanent famine reigns in the Ogowe region, because the villagers abandon their farms to fell as many trees as possible.’… ‘These people could achieve true wealth if they could develop their agriculture and trade to meet their own needs.’ Instead they produced timber for export to ‘the world market,’ which made them dependent upon imported goods that they bought with money earned from their exports. They gave up their local means of subsistence, and imposed the false standard of a foreign demand (‘as many trees as possible’) upon their forests. They thus became helplessly dependent on an economy over which they had no control. (Berry, 2003, 75-6)

But this example raises questions. Why would these villagers, living in a small local community, close to nature, with land that apparently was capable of providing them with “true wealth” give it all up for the timber trade, and do so repeatedly? Could they not learn? Did they not have the right relation to nature that should have helped them resist the temptation to engage in international trade with more money perhaps but also more dependency? Perhaps the colonialism of the time had something to do with this but we are not told how. Could it be that living close to nature is not enough? That greed or a desire to improve material living standards above subsistence was more attractive? What does this say for the sustainability of agrarian communities in the West? Will they also ultimately fall prey to the lure of profits and abandon their farms and small communities?

More specifically in the little economy there are a number of questions that should be addressed in the application of his two principles of a local economy, neighborhood and subsistence as explained above. It is not clear exactly what he means by markets. Are these community or private markets? Is land privately owned or is there a mixture of private and community ownership? That is, given his stress on the community’s produce and the obligation of the community to protect its productive capacity, are these markets “free” or controlled by the community? If the latter, what form does it take? An informal, ad hoc neighborly agreement among all concerned? A local government regulation? One can see the former method working only in very small communities with strong common values. But as soon as the values are diverse or the population becomes too numerous, such informal agreement becomes increasingly difficult to establish and maintain. It is doubtful that love of nature is a sufficient value to hold a community together over long periods of time or with a large population susceptible to conflicting interests. One could picture, instead, a free, proprietor-based market system rather than a corporation based one as consistent with his overall vision. Whatever form it takes, if it is to have freedom and productivity, some measure of competition must be admitted even in an agrarian society.

How, for example, would such a community deal with imports and exports? What does it mean to meet the needs of the local population first before engaging in trade or that his form of protectionism is “the best assurance of adequate supplies to local consumers”? (Berry, 2003, 75). It may be that trade is the very means by which such needs are best met. But if so, or for any admission of trade between communities, the result will be to engage in some measure of specialization. The viable community will not be able to pay for any imports unless it exports and that requires increasing its local production for the express purpose of producing a surplus to be marketed elsewhere. It will not be an accidental surplus but an intentional one. This makes for the very economic interdependence he is so reluctant to admit. In fact, a rightly crafted international trade policy for agriculture can contribute greatly to the stability of the country since domestic swings in demand can be partially offset by the demand in other nations. He may wish to consider the possibility of trade from complements as opposed to trade for substitutes in a local community (which economists call inter-industry trade as opposed to intra-industry trade).

How will “just prices” be established in communities trading with one another if they are not done in free markets? How exactly does the “principle of neighborhood at home” imply “charity abroad”? (Why not the traditional formula that charity begins at home? Is it because the principle of protected subsistence living produces surpluses which can be given away in charity?) If so, this is problematic for subsistence living by its very nature tends not to produce systematic surpluses, and there is no reason to believe that one community’s dearth will occur when the other community has a surplus, so that the charity may not be adequate.

If expensive local labor (for a particular market) is protected, how are local needs being justly met, if there is a trading community with cheaper labor? (Where is the charity in that other community to allow its labor to become so cheap? Is not trading with them truly just for its members?) Is not withholding trade in this case similar to using food as a weapon which he disparages elsewhere?

Trading with a community with lower costs may be the best ecologically because in so doing one is husbanding resources and easing pressure on the environment. If free markets are allowed they will tend to produce specialization in trade according to lowest cost producers and it is difficult to see how the rule requiring the avoidance of specialization for trade (surplus) can be avoided unless by constant interference by the community as a whole. As with the total and its parts, the immanent, wholistic view of nature blurs the distinction between the individual and the community, thereby threatening individual freedom in the neighborhoods as surely as with oppressive corporations and in conflict with his other stated goal such as freedom.

Perhaps a counter-example is useful here. German economist Wilhelm Roepke, likewise a staunch defender of the peasant economy and critic of modern agribusiness, explains the changes in Denmark in the late 19th and 20th centuries. This small country revised its policies to encourage farming but in such a way as to be more fully involved in international trade. By switching from the production of wheat to specialized agricultural products (fruits, vegetables, etc.), the Danes extended the number of people and acreage devoted to farming both in crops and in cattle and participated in international free trade with little or no protectionism. Acreage devoted to cattle doubled while that devoted to specialized agricultural crops tripled. The agricultural population increased by a quarter. (Roepke, 1942, 206, 245-6)

Such examples can be models illustrating, in this case, the unity of an agrarian society with international trade. Such models could be multiplied. But the very sentimentalism Berry attributes to the present economy – satisfaction lying in the ever-fugitive future – also bedevils his own thinking when he rejects the models of the past declaring the true one lies ahead of us. With the numerous demands he makes on community and economy this is not surprising.

Conclusion

Throughout his writings Berry displays a welcome piety toward nature in contrast to the hubris found in the industrial economy. The pious agrarian works within certain limits, avoiding an aggressive, domineering approach to nature; in a humane economy he is content with what is reasonable, sustainable, and enduring and derives a wholesome pleasure from proper work; and he recognizes the need for stable communities and neighborhoods. These points and more, to enumerate which space fails us, Berry rightly promotes. But what has been emphasized here is that despite many positive aspects, and his other, perhaps conflicting writings notwithstanding, the vision of economic health in the literature examined here is seriously flawed by an inclination toward an egalitarian monistic naturalism and near utopian social organization that unless carefully crafted, clarified, and qualified is in danger of exchanging one deformed system for another.

Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

References:

Berry, Wendell. 2002. “Two Economies.” In The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba, 219-235. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint.
———. 2002. “The Whole Horse.” In The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba, 236-248. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint.
———. 2002. “A Big Bad Idea.” In The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba, 262-266. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint.
———. 2003. “The Total Economy.” In Citizenship Papers, 63-76. Washington D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard.
———. 1977. “The Unsettling of America.” In The Unsettling of America:Culture & Agriculture, 3-14. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
———. 1977. “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Character.” In The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, 17-26. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
———. 1977. “The Body and the Earth.” In The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, 97-140. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
———. 1977. “Margins.” In The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, 171-223. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Roepke, Wilhelm. 1942. “Avenues of Approach and Examples.” In The Social Crisis of Our Time, 198-254. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.
Weaver, Richard. 1948. “The Unsentimental Sentiment.” In Ideas Have Consequences, 32-33. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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7 replies to this post
  1. Excellent work, Mr. Ancil. While there are aspects of Mr. Berry that I have found appealing–esp. his fiction (Jaber Crow and That Distant Land come to mind), there are subtexts that have troubled me. You've unearthed them. Mr. Berry has been chuckling for some time over paleoconservative hagiography of all things Wendell Berry. The puzzlement felt by many conservatives over Mr. Berry's support of behavior among humans that he would not tolerate in his livestock should have come as a revelation. We need to recover biblical householding, with all those marvelous traditional virtues Mr. Berry apparently cannot reconcile himself to, remembering the etymological truth that virtues are manly things. (Post corrected–resending)

  2. This essay seems merely to be a justification for dismissing the thought of a man who should be one of the conservative's greatest living allies. I've read half a dozen or so of Wendell Berry's nonfiction works, as well as Jayber Crow and That Distant Land, this year and only felt a profound conviction of the truth of his words. Certainly, I have not felt myself up to Berry's call, but I feel the same when I read the works of Aquinas, Lewis, and Pope Benedict XVI – not to mention the gospels themselves.

    It also seems strange that we should consider Berry's vision "impractical" when he has merely not seen fit to associate policies with his philosophy. The idea that perhaps a man could be kind to his neighbor (geographical or not) without the force of law to make him so is, I think, something that imaginative conservatives should believe possible and desirable.

    If Mr. Ancil is worried that some readers of this blog might be led astray by viewing Wendell Berry as an infallible oracle of conservative thought, then perhaps his critique is warranted. However, I have not yet the man who wouldn't benefit from spending a little more time with the inhabitants of Port William or the thoughts of the farmer of Port Royal.

  3. I have not met Mr. Berry. I heard him read a story to a Philadelphia Society meeting in Louisville, and it was honorable, gentlemanly, and he seemed to me to be a good and humble man. I like much of his fiction, although I find his poetry mediocre. His theology, as I understand it, is rather protestant/enlightenment/contentless. The agrarian religion is of course no more satisfying than the classical liberal free market religion. If John Miller is right about Mr. Berry's tolerance for murdering babies (which some people call "choice") then I am quite reluctant to take seriously what else he may have to teach us.

  4. Dr. Willson,

    Thanks for pointing toward Miller's article as the source of the author's and the previous commenter's perception of Berry's stance on unnatural marriage and abortion. I trust Mr. Miller's journalistic integrity, but I'm surprised and disappointed in Berry's words which he quotes. In the 1,000+ pages of Berry's prose that I've read, I never found anything to suggest that his views on these subjects were anything but orthodox.

    I believe it was in your Western Heritage class, Dr. Willson, that I first heard the words of St. Augustine, "truth belongs to the Lord, wherever it is found". Good and evil are not to be balanced, so I won't say that the good outweighs the bad in Berry; however,I have found him to be an articulate and stalwart advocate of much that is true, good, and beautiful.

    I'm sorry to hear that the man himself is not as consistently sound as his prose.

    -Zach Good ('04 alumnus of Dr. Willson's Western Heritage course)

  5. Z,

    I still find much to admire in Mr. Berry, but I was not altogether surprised at the news of his support for gay marriage (something I heard about through Rod Dreher). If it all turns out to be a misunderstanding, I will be pleased. I find his localism, his commitment to responsible citizenship within the context of a stable and viable community, his frugality, among other things, all praise worthy. I have enjoyed his essays and have found myself nodding in agreement much of the time–but there has been something nagging at me all the while, something vaguely unsettling. And when I would occasionally hear of his castaway comments about conservatives (always in the context of, well, that's just Wendell Berry), I have been disappointed. Again, maybe it is all a misunderstanding. On the other hand, perhaps we have read things into Mr. Berry–things we hoped he was saying. Perhaps that is the misunderstanding.

  6. Zach, thank you for that good response. I admit that I admire Wendell Berry more than my comment above might indicate. But I'm sorry, the older I get, the more I pare things down to the core, the more the bottom line of life holds my heart. Would I have killed my 95 year old dementia-ridden mother? Even when she knew almost nobody but her four children she told me one of the most beautiful stories I have ever heard. She trusted me. Would you trust a woman or man who thinks that "choice" is good? Did your mother "choose" you?

  7. Mr Berry's economics is well-meaning romanticism and little more; the author makes a good start on that. Meanwhile my respect for Roepke grows apace.

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