Going Total


The big news of the month was the Conservative party smashing whatever hope remained that something decent could be saved from this Brexit debacle, along with the flat-lining of the once reputable, now shambolic, Labor Party. At least I think that was the month's big news. The US President was impeached I guess, whatever that means. I'm pretty sure it doesn't mean we're to be rid of him, which is exactly what I thought it meant, and what the framers of our constitution meant it to mean, so forgive me for being unimpressed and perhaps a little uninformed.


I'm again playing "choose your own adventure" with the news, so the storyline I'm following isn't too coherent. I'm filtering in a new way now -- not by ideology but by source. Social media is out. Book reviews are my new go-to. Scrolling the phone - out. Literature has made a big return after decades of non-fiction. Cable news remains entirely out, of course. Podcasts still joyously in.


So my view of our peril is very blinkered -- but I believe that's true for everyone, even the so-called well-informed. The information coming at us, and change happening to us, makes it impossible to connect more than a few dots. And anyhow my sense is that a modicum of awareness is all that's needed right now -- enough to know that every system we rely on -- political, economic, ecological and cultural, is listing badly. I know that much. How fast or total the breakdowns I don't know and don't need to know.


A certain amount of looking away is actually a very good practice. It's like standing in a village and choosing not to watch a house ablaze. True, the flames are hard to ignore. The fire's an actual event, and the destruction on view is a spectacle -- perversely captivating, even. But the house is not the whole village. Turning around, you're reminded that other buildings stand quietly by. There are gardens doing their thing, and streets, and woods in the beyond, intact, with birds and sounds and life composting itself in all its timelessness. Most of what's always happened on this earth is still happening, even as those flames continue to insist, with their worrying heat.


Even with so much desecration on display, we must first acknowledge the choice we're making about where we're looking. The burning house is an emergency. It is also a distraction.


What is the burning house? Well for me, it's the freak show that has become the Republican Party. But it's also climate change, which could easily invade my every thought if I allowed it. It's late-stage capitalism and the great societal deformity it's wrought. And it's the matter-of-fact violence perpetrated daily in the name of all the above, most cynically against poor people and nonwhite people. I guess the best word to capture all of it would be injustice. We're awash in it, and if you're paying any attention at all, it's impossible to miss. And it must not be missed. But neither should it be stared at. To fight it, we need the sustenance and succor of its opposite. We need to alight our gaze on other buildings. Woods. Gardens. Birds.


So it was that I began devouring books again this fall like I did in the 1990s (before kids), but this time without the englightenment agenda that characterized that decade of learning for me. The reading encroached on my writing, and it also, as would be expected, broadened my frame of reference on Wendell Berry. Both effects have made Walking With Wendell a little harder lately.


Take for example Guns, Germs and Steel, which I finally got around to reading. A lot of important ideas there, including the one that has stayed with me the most: every human society with more advanced technology has destroyed their less advanced neighboring societies. Not just in Europe. Not just with the Native Americans. Every. Single. Time. Like, for 20,000 years. Or consider the remarkable The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, in which Leonard Shlain documents how the adoption of a singular technology -- the alphabet -- has wreaked destruction on feminine values and cultures repeatedly, throughout history. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers explains how "loose" and "tight" cultures arise from the perception of threat in societies, in organizations and even in human brains, with the secure among us valuing innovation and initiative and the insecure necessarily hewing to conformity, order and rule-following. Good stuff to know, but dispiriting for those of us hoping that Wendell's prescription of universal neighborliness might somehow catch on. The historical record seems pretty clear on that one. It ain't never happened that way.


All of that plus the despondency of reading James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, which I'm both proud and embarassed to have finally done. To be dark-skinned in a white world is to know the vacuity of "neighborliness" as an organizing concept. Through these writers I began to glimpse how Wendell's first-order principles of neighborliness, geography, charity, husbandry and economy are made stillborn by the virus of racism.


Wendell Berry's worldview was perfected in an actual neighborhood -- a struggling and declining one to be sure, but a neighborhood nevertheless, and one in which he knew he counted. The practice of neighborhood, he says, is neighbors asking what they and their place can provide for one another. This is the beginning of the local economy, which, he adds, is also characterized by subsistance -- the protection of what's worth cherishing in a place, including a community's production capacity. But I wonder. Would Baldwin's Harlem, or Angelou's rural Arkansas, or Lorain, Ohio, where Toni Morrison grew up, qualify as neighborhoods by these terms? Or, if they do, then a more sinsister question to ask is if they did for them? What if neighborhoods are only neighborly for some, and then only by way of exclusion and intimidation?


I returned to Wendell this month with my view broadened and my idealism dimmed by these recent readings that seem to reveal the extent of Wendell Berry's ahistoricism. The central conflict for Berry is the human household economy's misalignment with the household of nature. We take and take, like miners, more brutally with each passing decade. Corporations are given rights of freedom that most individuals will never hope to enjoy, along with our proxies to produce, as cheaply as possible, every last good and service imaginable -- even those that were once done informally and inexpensively by individuals or households or communities -- for sale at the highest price possible. Through a false accounting, the world becomes more prosperous as communities perish, families fall apart, jungles burn, fishing stocks crash, topsoil washes away and forests shrink.


In The Total Economy (2000), Wendell takes down what we've come to understand as neoliberalism, recognizing that "free" markets have become "freest" to those with the most money - like giant corporations that are free to monopolize entire sectors (or communities) -- and free to exploit labor and natural resources with fewer and fewer costs. Further, he understood, even then, that the economy had become a behemoth -- a totalitarian regime of corporate power that would usurp not just individual freedoms, but those of state and national governments as well. And with their demise would come the erosion of democratic process, which is necessarily "too slow to react to unrestrained economic and technological development on a global scale." "A total economy," Wendell writes,"is for all intents and purposes, a total government...(in which) the people have no power and the land no voice."


All of this is classic Wendell and it's all spot on. It's more evidence of the "absurd prescience" he was credited with by a New Yorker writer recently, and I suspect that essays like this one will be part of the syllabus for teaching future generations about the failure of neoliberalism.


If I was hoping to find holes in his views, blasted through by all the history and memoir I've been reading, I can report spotting maybe one. I don't think that Wendell's prescriptions are quite up to his descriptions. I'm not sure there's anyone better to teach the odiousness of neoliberalism; I'm also not sure that relocalizing land-bounded economies is the right response. Not that I have a better one, mind you. Twenty thousand years of tecnological extension and domination is a record that deserves grudging respect, though it pains me to admit it. It may be that human beings are colonizers, plain and simple.


As for that house on fire -- the injustice all around us, Wendell, as ever, is not without some sage advice. Yes, he says -- pay attention and look and see. (Look and See is the 2018 documentary about the Berrys, so named because that's the expression Wendell and Tanya so often used in instructing their children to apprehend the lessons and beauty of their farmland surroundings). "To be a consumer in the total economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive..." But it is possible to see from a local point of view. "One can begin to see the difference between a small local business that must share the fate of the local community and a large absentee corporation that is set up to escape the fate of the local community by ruining the local community."


Justice, Berry says, invoking Ananda Coomaraswamy's work on traditional cultures, is endemic to the local. It is bound up in vocation. That is to say, how we work. The construction of our economy. "It is by way of the practice of vocation that sanctity and reverence enter into the human economy," says Berry. What he's saying here, paraphrasing Coomaraswamy, is that injustice arises with the disappearance of vocation, which is "work plus meaning." Perhaps the breakdowns I mentioned are all just symptoms of this larger injustice, let loose by centuries of demonic advance on the twin frontiers of territory and technology.


It's only the economy, and the government, which have gone Total. Amazon will probably be the first Total corporation. The house burns.


But still the birds chirp. Seeds fall. Trees live and die. Stories are written and published and read. Beautiful conversations happen over meals, on podcasts, in our imaginations. People can't go Total. People are local. Even when overrunning or ignoring our neighbors. Even when voting against our own self-interest. Even in all our colonizing disgrace and tech obsession. Against all odds, the village survives. It's worth a look.