People who love Wendell Berry like I do, must wish, like I do, that more people really loved him. What a world this could be. What a better society we could make. The Berryist believes, in full earnestness, that we can still make a lasting peace on earth if we could just get a few things straight.
What Wendell says and believes make intuitive sense because Berryism works at this gut level -- down at the bottom of things. My feeling, reading him, is intensely personal because he doesn't venture far from home. His arguments and defendants -- the land underfoot, the community out your door, the plants and animals that share the planet -- these are real and even better, recognizable. His ideology flows from material that’s right at hand. Localism is the Berryist’s iron law.
But localism is also the conundrum that devotees like me grapple with, and the reason why Wendell Berry isn’t widely taught as a political theorist or hailed as a political genius. Berryism does not scale. Which is its point. Like all things small and local, Wendell Berrys’ ideas seem charming in the worst sense of that word. They are too often misread as old-timey and beguiling, and are therefore easily dismissed.
Neither charm nor dismissal does justice to the complexity of Professor Berry’s canon. Especially now, when climate and political breakdown are jetting us toward catastrophe, localism and even agrarianism need our best thinking. We might still have time to figure out how to settle on this planet. If we don’t, our lives are going to get extremely local -- very quickly and very unhappily.
In Distrust of Movements, from Citizenship Papers, begins with Wendell’s reminder that his American, Kentucky and Henry County citizenships are defined entirely by his inhabitation of the westward bank of the lower Kentucky River. His admonishment that ideas -- including his own -- aren’t universally applicable to all places is a reminder that we too must think for ourselves about where we live and whether any local allegiance supersedes our identification as Americans. That it may not doesn’t obviate the homemaking work that clearly must happen if we are to stave off the coming holocaust of a too-hot planet.
While Wendell notes, with gratitude, the growing number of people who are seriously engaged in furthering agrarian ways of life, he recognizes that “to oppose the abuses of industrial land use and finally correct them, and to develop the locally adapted economies and cultures that are necessary for our survival, will take many lifetimes of dedicated work.” Movements, he believes, aren’t up to the task.
Movements fail, he says, because they are partial, eventually confused, and ultimately self-betraying. For evidence, he points to the organic movement, which, through the appropriation of the word and nothing more, was co-opted by the corporate sector and US Department of Agriculture, which continue to collude in the poisoning of our soil and water. And consider the numerous conservation movements that have set aside much beloved lands and waters while at the same abetting the destruction of working landscapes and less scenic but-no-less-important habitat. Movements, Berry laments, are everywhere dealing with effects and not causes -- with policies and not behaviors.
But his distrust of movements gives me pause.
From the sidelines, since I’m not much of a joiner, I’ve been cheering for two contemporary movements with great hope. One is the Sunrise Movement and the other the Extinction Rebellion. Both have exploded onto the scene with great force, extreme and united in their view that our current political and economic systems are dooming life on earth to an early grave. Judged against a couple of Wendells’ criticisms -- over-specialization and tepidity -- both of these movements more than hold their own. They are comprehensive and they are radical.
But against a third criticism -- the failure to tackle land abuse as the prima facie cause of universal economic violence -- even these two movements fade into the crowd. Their focus and demands are purely political and, quite literally, ungrounded. They are unabashedly seeking to solve the climate emergency through political reform instead of taking up the essential tasks of provisioning the household, the neighborhood and the community economy. Political reform has had some trickle down effect in the personal and hyper-local realm that Wendell Berry surveys -- civil rights, abortion rights and same-sex marriage all come to mind. But in Berryism, political reform is never sufficient.
Berryism is comprised of two parts, really, and neither are political. One part is geographic and the other is biological.
As already mentioned, the first rule is that Berryism grows from the land underfoot. The politics and economics of a place must derive from the place. As a result, the unit of government that matters most, or maybe matters only, is likely no bigger than a watershed.
The biological rule is that all of us, everywhere, need food and shelter. For our whole human history, and for the duration of our human future, it’s us and this earth -- us and these nutrition-dependent bodies. No matter what, we’re going to have keep eating, and the earth is going to be our only food source. The agrarian argument is pretty simple: the earth is our sustenance; its good care is therefore a biological imperative.
Thus the backbone of Berryism is the conserving use of nature’s irreplaceable gifts on which our very lives depend. Like I said, it’s a perspective from down at the very bottom of things.
But do these fundaments cohere into a useful political philosophy? Would we really be better off without political entities larger than a township or village or watershed council? Would peace and prosperity necessarily follow good land use in every place? Do local communities not enjoy advantages like markets, which exist only because of political agreements and far-flung alliances? Would we become peaceable if we were less politically connected? The tribalism that’s increasingly on display in our current affairs doesn’t suggest so.
The evolution of political systems happened, I suspect, to hoist us out of this bottom place where food and shelter defined the daily contours of citizens’ lives.
Berryism is proudly anti-industrial, which places it outside history, in a sense. Berryists are used to taking up positions far outside the norm. But I’m beginning to wonder if Berryism isn’t anti-political too. Because Wendell Berry seems to reject the sovereignty of anything or anyone from elsewhere. And yet that’s exactly what politics are for -- to organize people through ideas of “common wealth” in lieu of the ancient bonds of clan and land. Our political systems helped us evolve from clan and land-based social systems, and, as is always the case with our evolutionary past, we aren’t keen to give any credit to ways that have been extinguished.
Everything about our progress seems to have sprung from the opposite of Berryism -- from advances in science, technology and yes, political systems that would not exist but for the transcendence of our physical places.
But it’s looking more and more like our evolutionary track is the wrong one. Berryism is asking us to stop being afraid of a past that we imagine as primitive and to start acknowledging the empirical facts of our homicidal modernism. The trap is assuming that the local automatically leads back to vestigial paths in our species’ evolutionary tree.
This is the conundrum. We can’t go back, but we must find our way home.
Here’s how to do it, according to Wendell: First, we must abandon piecemeal, one-shot solutions. “Even now, after centuries of reductionist propaganda, the world is still intricate and vast, as dark as it is light, a place of mystery, where we can’t do one thing without doing many things, or put two things together without putting many things together.”
Second, we must take full responsibility as participants in this violent economy, which means that we must not only work publicly for saner policies, but that we must also lead private lives that make good economic sense, Meaning, for example, that we must do more for ourselves and our neighbors. More urgent than changing our politicians, we must change our lives.
Finally, we must content ourselves to be poor because the solutions we need must be within reach of everybody. Large sums of money inevitably lead to expensive technologies and expansive administrations that live off the problems they are supposed to solve. Have we not learned by now that the syndrome of academic research, technology, commercialization, centralization and specialization are a plague on this planet and its communities? Many of the products of this system are wondrous; they are nevertheless imperiling us.
Wendell Berry has little patience for movements because you would never rely on a movement to solve a local problem. You would rely on yourself, or your neighbors, or perhaps the elders who are so named, or elected, to do this very kind of problem solving.
Of course we don’t live in a world of local economies and local communities, for better or worse. I rather doubt that there is no use for movements in the geopolitical world that we do live in. To dismiss movements in that world is as short sighted as dismissing Berryism as simply charming. It's patently true that women and historically marginalized people like African-Americans and homosexuals have benefitted from political movements and that local communities are the stronger for these politically organized victories.
But I get where Wendell is coming from. Movements aren’t going to bridge us from the current world to a more Berryist world, no matter how effective they are. If we could collectively learn to remake our communities holistically and through our own powers, by localizing our economic lives as much as possible, in full recognition that living more poorly is an acceptable part of deal, then will we have arrived in the world Wendell is imagining for us. A world that he foresees as demanding and gratifying, characterized by the practice and discipline of domestic arts which are in fact our “profoundest calling.”
He’s merely saying we can’t march our way into this future, and that there won’t be a bumper sticker to announce it’s arrival. And that we mustn't let movements distract from the work that can only happen, in pure Berryist form, close to home.