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southern agrarianAs I’m thinking about the various influences on Kirk (and, hence, the post-WWII American Right), I started thinking about the Southern Agrarians as well as the English Distributists.

There are many who write for this blog who know far more about these groups than I do. But, from what I can tell, this American version of these groups is either totally forgotten or dismissed as some kind of nostalgic Neo-Cons (confederates, that is).

I had the privilege of spending the weekend–several weekends ago, now–with Allan Carlson at an Earhart Conference. One of the things I noted (as a hypothesis) to him was that a libertarian would probably feel more comfortable with the English Distributists than with the Southern Agrarians. While both opposed centralization, the Distributists believed that one accomplished this best by abolishing corporate laws, while the Southern Agrarians were perfectly willing to use a positive law to protect local interests. Allan seemed to agree with this–but I’m very interested in what the readers of The Imaginative Conservative think of this.

I’ve also had the privilege of reading lots of Flannery O’Connor this summer.

How important are the Southern Agrarians? Do they still have things to tell us, eight decades later? 

An Idyllic English Countryside?

Winston, of course, holds a very positive view toward the Distributists.  Hilaire Belloc is usually regarded as the beginning/the inspiration for modern agrarianism. Though, of course, it was always latent in romantic poetry, thought, and literature.   Belloc published his Servile State in 1912. At that time, of course, many considered him a total radical.  Later, he contributed to the Agrarian follow up to I’ll Take My StandWho Owns America (1936). For Belloc, modern means industrial.

This modern/industrial man “seems to have three characteristics”:

First, he has lost the old doctrinal position on transcendental things . . . .Second, as a consequence of this he has lost his economic freedom, or indeed, the very conception of it.Third, there has been produced in him, by loss of economic freedom, coupled with the loss of the old religious doctrines, an interior conception of himself which molds all of his actions.Not it should be clear to anyone who will think lucidly and coldly upon the direction in which all this must move that it is moving toward the re-establishment of slavery. Industrial capitalism, as we now have it, the control of the means of production, distribution, and exchange (and the control of the modes, therefore, by which production, distribution, and exchange are conducted) by a few, must mean the many are compelled to work for the profit of the few. [Belloc, “The Modern Man”, in Who Owns America?, 438]

What had gone wrong? England had enjoyed a glorious era—but it was brief—sometime only beginning in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.  From Belloc’s perspective, it was a time of true freedom and widespread property ownership.

These three forms under which labor was exercised—the serf, secure in his position, and burdened only with regular dues, which were but a fraction of his produce; the freeholder, a man independent save for money dues, which were more of a tax than a rent; the guild, in which well-divided capital worked cooperatively for craft production, for transport and commerce—all three between them were making for a society which should be based upon the principle of property. All, or most—the normal family—should own. And on ownership the freedom of the state should repose. The state, as the minds of men envisaged it at the close of this process, was an agglomeration of families of varying wealth, but by far the greater number owners of the means of production. It was an agglomeration in which the stability of this distributive system (as I have called it) was guaranteed by the existence of cooperative bodies, binding men of the same craft or of the same village together; guaranteeing the small proprietor against loss of economic independence, while at the same time it guaranteed society against the growth of a proletariat. If liberty of purchase and sale, or mortgage and of inheritance was restricted, it was restricted with the social object of preventing the growth an economic oligarchy which could exploit the rest of the community. The restraints upon liberty were restraints designed for the preservation of liberty; and every action of medieval society, from the flower of the Middle Ages to the approach of their catastrophe, was directed towards the establishment of a state in which men should be economically free through the possession of capital and land. [Belloc,The Servile State, 80]

Back to America . . . .

A friendship of sorts developed among twelve southern men—including John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Frank L. Owsley, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, and Robert Penn Warren–between 1925 and 1929.

In 1930, as readers of The Imaginative Conservative very well know, they issued a “Statement of Principles” against modernity at a symposium entitled I’ll Take My Stand (and published their protest under the same title)—though they almost called the book “A Tract Against Communism.”It was intentionally anti-ideological, and, therefore, at times vague, presenting “a philosophy of Southern life rather than a detailed programme” [Davidson, “’I’ll Take My Stand’: A History,” American Review 5 (1935): 303.]

Suddenly we realized to the full what we had long been dimly feeling, that the Lost Cause might not be wholly lost after all. In its very backwardness the South had clung to some secret which embodied, it seemed, the precise elements out of which its own reconstruction—and possibly even the reconstruction of America—might be achieved. With American civilization, ugly and visibly bent on ruin, why should we not explore this secret? [Davidson, “’I’ll Take My Stand’: A History,” American Review 5 (1935): 308.]

At the conference and in the statement of principles, the twelve admitted to being moved by the Civil War generation, especially their virtue and dedication. They, the Southern Agrarians believed, had understood “the good life.”

What we remembered of the dignity and strength of the generation that found the Confederate war . . . all this drove us straight to the South and its tradition. The good life we sought was once embodied here, and it lingered yet. [Davidson, “’I’ll Take My Stand’: A History,” American Review 5 (1935): 310.]

As it turns out, the good life was intimately tied to the agrarian life style.They, however, went well beyond mere nostalgia for an aristocratic Southern culture.

We never believed that one could be a good Southerner by simply drinking mint-juleps or by remarking sententiously on the admirable forbearance of Lee after Appomattox.” [Davidson, “’I’ll Take My Stand’: A History,” American Review 5 (1935): 309.]

The Hopes of the Southern Agrarians

So, it’s worth reconsidering just what the Southern Agrarians promoted:

Of late, however, there is the melancholy fact that the South itself has wavered a little and shown signs of wanting to join up behind the common or American industrial ideal. It is against that tendency that this book is written. The younger Southerners, who are being converted frequently to the industrial gospel, must come back to the support of the Southern tradition.

Industry and “capitalization of the applied sciences” has “enslaved our human energies to a degree now clearly felt to be burdensome.Even the apologists of industrialism have been obliged to admit that some economic evils follow in the wake of the machines. These are such as overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth:

” . . . but they have no real solutions except more industry. “They expect the evils to disappear when we have bigger and better machines, and more of them. . . . With respect to these last it must be insisted that the true Sovietists or Communists—if the term may be used her ein the European sense—are the Industrialists themselves. They would have the government set up an economic super-organization, which in turn would become the government. We therefore look upon the Communist menace as a menace indeed, but not as a Red one; because it is simply according to blind drift of our industrial development to expect in America at last much the same economic system as that imposed by violence upon Russia in 1917.”

Religion can hardly expect to flourish in an industrial society. Religion is our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is the sense of our role as creatures within it. But nature industrialized, transformed into cities and artificial habitations, manufactured into commodities, is no longer nature but a highly simplified picture of nature. We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent. The God of nature under these conditions is merely an amiable expression, a superfluity, and the philosophical understanding ordinarily carried in the religious experience is not there for us to have.

The Southern Agrarians, it should be noted, also opposed the Humanism of Babbitt and More.  Simply put, they considered the Humanists too abstract.

Humanism, properly speaking, is not an abstract system, but a culture, the whole way in which we live, act, think, and feel. It is a kind of imaginatively balanced life lived out in a definite social tradition. And, in the concrete, we believe that this, the genuine humanism, was rooted in the agrarian life of the older South and of other parts of the country that shared in such a tradition. It was not an abstract moral “check” derived from the classics-it was not soft material poured in from the top. It was deeply founded in the way of life itself-in its tables, chairs, portraits, festivals, laws, marriage customs. We cannot recover our native humanism by adopting some standard of taste that is critical enough to question the contemporary arts but not critical enough to question the social and economic life which is their ground. [I’ll Take My Stand, xliv]

I must admit, this part bothers me.  While I think highly of the twelve, none really could match someone such as Paul Elmer More in depth of thought or understanding of the twentieth-century.


Still, I’ll end this rambling blog on a hopeful note.

We are, however, agreed with the English Distributists that the most desirable objective is to break them down into small units owned and controlled by real people. We want to see property restored and the proletariat thus abolished and communism made impossible. The more widespread is the ownership of property, the more happy and secure will be the people and the nation. [Owsley, “The Pillars of Agrarianism,” American Review 4 (1934-1935): 532]

Amen, Frank, amen.

Books discussed or mentioned in this article may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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11 replies to this post
  1. Yes, they do count. As time goes on and our house-of-cards economy continues to collapse, I suspect they will count even more.

    My thoughts as someone paid to promote/defend the free market but who finds himself increasingly flirtatious with distributism — economic thought on the right nowadays is dominated by technocrats, neo-cons, and people unable to do much more than repeat talking points fed them by Fox News, etc., and most of these folks are oblivious to or oddly comfortable with the fact that our country manufactures little more than debt and pornography anymore.

    I agree with your hypothesis that a libertarian would probably feel more at home with distributists than southern agrarians, and for precisely the reason you state. Libertarians have a healthy fear of using positive law to protect interests (local or otherwise).

    I am curious how distributists would prevent the concentration of wealth/property, short of positive law?

  2. John, I think you are a bit pessimistic about American manufacturing, not to mention not accurate. I've heard such slams about American manufacturing for years, both from the left and the right. In fact, America manufactures more now than it did 20 or 30 years ago, it's just that what we make is different than it was then. I've heard and seen the stats, but don't have them handy. But it's true.

    Anecdotally, this was made real to me a few years ago when I started calling into manufacturers trying to find suspects for our website solutions. I was blown away at how many manufacturers there really are in the US. In fact, the state of US manufacturing is quite healthy. But one reason there are fewer people employed in this sector is because of technology and increasing efficiency. On that level it *appears* that we're not doing all that well.

    And for what it's worth, I've always thought of Southern Agrarians as another form of Utopian. I've known some and read some, and they seem to have a difficult time dealing with the real world and what a mess it is and will always be.

  3. Mike, if you can show some research to back up your claims, I'm all ears. The dominant trend I have seen in my own research is a widespread decline in U.S. manufacturing. It's not a question of looking at just one or two indicators, but rather a variety of stats on a national and global scale, given the complexity of our economy. Amidst a work day I don't have the time to dig around and find the resources I have used, but I'm happy to share them here as soon as I get the chance.

    On the level of anecdote, in 15 years of shopping I have noticed far fewer goods purchased regularly in the states are actually made in the states. Recent exercises in building a wedding registry and outfitting a home made this very clear.

    Your own phrasing tells me you understand that definitions are important. So any research on the status of manufacturing in the states has to be evaluated for definitions. I, for one, don't believe that providing a service is the same as manufacturing a product (at least not in most cases). Yet a great many folks in my field try to argue that very point.

    As Kirk said, "pessimism for pessimism's sake is as bad as optimism for optimism's sake." So I choose neither and instead attempt to assess reality, accepting both its beauty and tragedy, because as Kirk also said, "The present threat to our civilization comes as much from indifference, apathy, and selfishness as it does from the totalist powers."

  4. The Southern Agrarians of "I'll Take My Stand" provide an interesting glimpse into a turbulent time in America's history (has there ever been a time in this nation's history that hasn't been 'turbulent'?). One of the issues I've always had with them, however, is that few actually lived the life they endorsed. If I recall correctly, they were, to a man, academics. One reason why I respect guys like Matthew Crawford and Wendell Berry (though I have strong disagreement with the latter on many points) is they actually live the lifestyle they write about. The guys behind "I'll Take My Stand," by and large, lived within academic environments while encouraging others to 'get back to the land,' so to speak.

  5. A couple of other thoughts on this topic:

    First, libertarians would not have much in common with Distributists. Check out, for example Prof. Thomas E. Woods' small book, published by the Acton Institute, Beyond Distributism. In it, Woods, a well-known libertarian, a strong critique of Distributist economic thinking.

    Second, Jeff Jacoby provided a good defense of American manufacturing and its prominent position in the world in an article titled, Made in the U.S.A.. In it he writes:

    "There's just one problem with all the gloom and doom about American manufacturing. It's wrong.

    "Americans make more 'stuff' than any other nation on earth, and by a wide margin. According to the UN's comprehensive database of international economic data, America's manufacturing output in 2009 (expressed in constant 2005 dollars) was $2.15 trillion. That surpassed China's output of $1.48 trillion by nearly 46 percent. China's industries may be booming, but the United States still accounted for 20 percent of the world's manufacturing output in 2009 — only a hair below its 1990 share of 21 percent.

    " 'The decline, demise, and death of America's manufacturing sector has been greatly exaggerated,' says economist Mark J. Perry, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington."

    Jacoby continues:

    "So why do so many Americans fear that the Chinese are eating our lunch?

    "Part of the reason is that fewer Americans work in factories. Millions of industrial jobs have vanished in recent decades, and there is no getting around the hardship that has meant for many families. But factory employment has declined because factory productivity has so dramatically skyrocketed: Revolutions in technology enable an American worker today to produce far more than his counterpart did a generation ago. Consequently, even as America's manufacturing sector outproduces every other country on earth, millions of young Americans can aspire to become not factory hands or assembly workers, but doctors and lawyers, architects and engineers."

  6. I drafted a lengthy reply comment, complete with some links for further reading on the decline of U.S. manufacturing, and of course blogger would not let me post it for some reason. Daniel Crandall seemed to have no trouble posting a comment with html, yet mine was rejected with and without html.

    As Winston pointed out, Google hates me. Microsoft isn't a fan, either. This is my reward for all those years defending PCs against the onslaught of attacks by Mac fanatics. A plague on both their houses!

  7. Earlier this year the Director of National Intelligence (whose office is hardly a bastion of curmudgeonly doomsaying reactionaries) sought a National Intelligence Estimate on the state of manufacturing in the U.S. That's not something that happens on a whim.

    Forbes ran an interesting article with some stats and anecdotes on the decline of U.S. manufacturing:

    It's worth reading all the way through.

    Anyway, the old Mark Twain adage about lies, damn lies, and statistitics comes to mind here. We can trade anecdotes and research until we're blue in the face, for sure. And it is true that an increase in industrial efficiency accounts for much of the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs. But one real problem vis-a-vis domestic manufacturing that the statists and neo-cons can't spin is the trade deficit. Manufacturing produces real goods, which in turn drive exports. Trade surpluses drive international reserves, which make or break a nation's status as creditor or debtor. Our trade deficit has been growing steadily. Here's graphical view:

    We are a debtor nation with a nearly-fiat currency that other economic powers want to abandon as the standard reserve. That's a significant problem.

    And if I'm lucky, blogger will actually let me post this comment.

  8. Although I am temperamentally sympathetic with the ideas of agrarians/distributists, I fear that their seeming contempt for technology makes them prey to the Malthusian dilemma. If that is the case, then there is ultimately a seriously anti-human (even if unintentional) side to these as economic systems.
    As far as the need for positive law, you might consider reading Simone Weil's The Need for Roots in which she lays out a general program that has many agrarian/distributist elements. I am about half way through and it is notable how much state coersion she anticipates to make it work.

  9. Thomas Woods has been refuted again and again by leading distributist like Christopher Ferrara. The point is simply how you begin your economic perspective; in the Christian view of man as given in Scripture, the Fathers and by Church tradition or in 18th century, anti-Christian sophists ans 19th and 20th century feelosophers. The point is not whether manufacturing recovers, but the quality and effects of that industry, on all, and the whole corporate-capitalist economy.

    Distrbutists are not contemptuous of technology, but neither do we laud it necessarily either. We take the sensible course of actually thinking about it and wondering if any particular piece trully serves man, and God. There is nothing Malthusian or anti-human in this, indeed it is all about making technology serve man and not the oher way around(as most modern technocrats and modern society seems to want to have it.).

    Also I do not think there is anything wrong with the use of positive law if it is used intelligently. Since when was it a traditional conservative position to apply such libertarian standards?

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