Agrarianism is making a comeback both on the Christian right and in broader culture. As a seemingly unstoppable wave of crises batter the presiding liberal order, more and more people are coming to doubt that capitalism, and liberal democracy, truly represent Francis Fukiama’s “end of history.” History is back and in a big way. Natural disasters, pandemics, war, and feverish politics have eroded the idea that our world is on the brink of a blissful transcendence, that we stand over and above the petty struggles of the unenlightened past.
As our confidence and sense of superiority melts away, many are left searching for alternative approaches to social order. One such alternative is agrarianism, an old ideology but one that seems to diagnose the problem with the world today and offer a cure.
At its core, agrarianism is a condemnation of industrialism and therefore of modern life. Industry and technological advancement have separated man from what would make him happy: a healthy relationship with nature and a human community.
This message speaks to two of the biggest concerns for modern man: his alienation from others and the destruction of the natural world. It is no wonder then that Theodore Kacyznski, the infamous eco-terrorist, has re-entered the public imagination, with a flurry of memes and even a full length movie.
Our current dilemmas regarding technology are indeed unique to our age; however, they are simply components of a much bigger, and in fact perennial, question: “what is the good life?” What is good for people? And therefore what is good for society? Agrarianism, just like its foil, Progressivism or Industrialism, is an attempt to answer this question
Agrarianism’s answer is found largely in what it is opposed to. Simply put, it is opposed to progressivism. It is therefore primarily a negative movement and its essential attribute is a rejection – the rejection of industrialism. The less defined positive element of agrarianism can be described as the ‘culture of the soil’– the agrarian vision for the good life.
What this phrase refers to is a life of pre-industrial farming. Men work the land as directly as possible, this work disciplines their minds and bodies, and the work, in turn, results in their flourishing. The work is both pleasing and perfecting to those who undertake it. When work, including farm work, is mediated through technology, both its pleasure and reward to one’s character are seriously reduced.
More prescient are the agrarian critiques of the progressive philosophy of the good life. The progressive view of the good life is one in which men are free from nature. For man to be happy he must realize his inner or true self as he imagines it. Nature is a barrier to this realization as it imposes limits on what people can be and do. However, man can impose his will on nature, and therefore liberate himself, by subjugating nature to his will with industry and technology. Human effort gradually reverses man’s constraints under nature.
Progress is not limited to external or inhuman nature. The individual’s own nature, the way he is constituted, must change to suit his idea of who he should be. One’s physical or psychological attributes may be displeasing and therefore in need of alteration by technology.
Agrarianism correctly recognizes that this progressive desire to rebel against the natural order is fundamentally opposed to what is good for people. Under the industrialist society created by a progressive ethos, labor becomes repetitive and joyless, art is treated as product, and community is abandoned in search of freedom.
Unfortunately, agrarianism ultimately fails as an alternative to progressivism. It shares the corrupting heart of the progressive philosophy even while it harshly criticizes that philosophy’s less-central ideas. The agrarian conception of the good life continues the tradition of the Greek pagans, especially the Stoics. Within agrarianism, man’s purpose is fulfilled, that is to say he is made happy, by correctly relating to creation. Correct living is solely a question of acquiescence to the laws governing the matter around man. Fight these laws, seek false comfort in your ability to best nature, and you will inevitably perish.
Like agrarianism, progressivism seeks the good life solely in man’s relationship to creation, although in a rather different way. Instead of conforming to nature and its laws, man is to conform nature to his will. Although the two philosophies disagree about how men ought to relate to creation, they fully agree that the good life consists of such a relationship.
The primacy of creation in agrarianism is most evident in its treatment of religion. Richard Weaver, one of agrarianism’s most able proponents, offers a good example of agrarian thought about religion in his 1943 essay, “The Older Religiousness in the South.” Weaver describes the Southern approach to Christanity as one of unquestioning unity and obedience, congregants were not inclined to question or analyze matters of theology. Southern religion, for Weaver, was an illustration and model of how man was to relate to nature. Just like the Southern church, nature is mysterious and in many ways not fully comprehendible. Nature is also authoritative, it has its own laws and inevitabilities that man cannot resist.
Weaver believed that the content docility with which Southerner’s approached Christianity is the attitude one ought to have towards nature. A given religion’s theological soundness is irrelevant, what actually matters is how well it reconciles its adherents to nature and stabilizes their community.
Christianity, thus, is reduced to means to an end in Weaver’s agrarianism. Religion, the manner in which men relate to God, is good so far as it instructs men on how they ought to think and feel towards creation.
Agrarian labor, economics, and politics, are best because they maximize man’s access to nature and thus to the good life — a remarkably utilitarian outlook for a philosophy that claims to oppose modernist thought.
The gospel stands in contrast to both philosophies of man and matter. As Christians, our foremost relationship is to be one with God. Our relationship with him must be recognized as our greatest and highest good, any pursuit of the good life without this recognition is futile. Part of our relationship with God will indeed require the pursuit of a good relationship with creation. A proper relationship with creation does indeed look more like conformance than rebellion. However, even the best relationship to creation must be remembered as what it is, an aid and aspect of our greatest relationship: our relationship to God.