How families flourish
THE NEW AGRARIAN MIND:
The Movement Toward Decentralist Thought in Twentieth-Century America
By Allan Carlson
Transaction Publishers, Paperback RRP:
Available from News Weekly Books
Allan Carlson’s work should be loudly acclaimed by all those fighting for the family against the powerfully corrosive secular mass culture of the past century. It identifies the key elements of what makes for strong, religious, fertile, self-sufficient families.
The New Agrarian Mind surveys the attempts by 20th-century US agrarian movements to rebuild working, self-reliant, economically autonomous families, raising larger than average families.
While most of these movements failed, such working homes are in fact thriving on a sizeable scale on the social margins of American society – but not in the way most agrarian movement leaders anticipated.
Carlson, a Lutheran, is a fine researcher and prolific writer on family issues. He is the convenor of the World Congress of Families and director of the US-based Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society.
The main US agrarian movements came from all religious and social directions – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, secular. Each had its own philosophical and organisational approach to building strong rural families. Some, like Midwestern priest and rural activist Luigi Ligutti and economist Ralph Borsodi, influenced B.A Santamaria and the National Catholic Rural Movement, which he founded in the 1930s.
Other important American influences included head of Cornell University’s college of agriculture Liberty Hyde Bailey, Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman, Midwestern novelist and farmer Louis Bromfield, historian Herbert Agar, poet-novelist Wendell Berry, and Southern agrarians Andrew Lytle, Frank Owsley and Troy J. Cauley.
Carlson’s last chapter is the most important. He asks: were the new agrarians merely a sad, if noble, band of reactionaries, swept aside by more technologically-advanced agricultural farmers, the winners in capitalism’s process of “creative destruction”?
Indisputably, industrial agriculture has reduced the number of farmers from six million to two million in a century. But this doesn’t explain the failure of these movements, in the face of the success of others.
Over this time, the Older Order Amish expanded from 5,000 to 150,000, the Hutterites from 2,000 to 40,000 and other growing subsistence movements, like the Texas Brazos de Dios Homesteads, an Anabaptist community first organised in the tough Hell’s Kitchen district of Manhattan.
Carlson identified six factors that determined which groups succeeded and which failed.
First, those that failed unquestioningly embraced modern technology as part of farm efficiency. Because farm technology increased at a phenomenal pace (and at the price of huge farm debt), the industrial farm stripped away functions from the household. It undermined useful places for sons and daughters and thereby the cohesiveness of the family as a self-sustained working unit.
Those movements that succeeded had religious devotion and obedience that gave them the strength to voluntarily limit the use of new technology, and to make bearable the psychological price of renouncing modern consumerism. Efficiency was subordinated to preserving human labour and fine craft skills, which also happen to fetch much higher market prices than similar mass-produced goods.
“The Old Order Amish,” writes Carlson, “combine the use of hydraulic power, hand-held calculators, and portable gasoline engines with horse-drawn ploughs and oil lamps … Religious authority guides the human compromises with the machines. Prayer and ‘submission’ undergird the results.”
Carlson said that the record of 20th-century America shows that “a sustainable rural community and a subsistence farm economy can survive in democratic society only within a strong religious context”.
Second, many of the new agrarians never resolved their simultaneous call for “strong individualism” and “strong community”. Carlson says that the two co-exist only in agrarian mythology.
Many agrarians deplored communitarian, peasant-like existence while praising the free-standing independent 160-acre farm. Only Liguitti and Zimmerman grasped that the rooting of farm families in ethnic or religious community would be necessary for rural survival in the modern age.
Third, the new agrarians seriously misunderstood the nature of the modern suburb. In the first half of the century, they thought the suburban home with a garden and a chicken house would allow urban workers to keep one foot on the farm, and keep fertility rates high. The suburban quarter acre would be the hobby farm, while real farming became an elite scientific industrialised process to feed America and beyond.
But the post-World War II suburbs were the product of mass developers. Keeping a cat, dog and a mower was hardly subsistence gardening and animal husbandry.
Carlson has calculated that the post-war baby boom was largely a product of the Catholic population. Early 1960s Catholic families had an average of 4.25 children, while non-Catholics had 3.14.
Catholic fertility was heavily tied to doctrinal opposition to birth control, more frequent Mass attendance, and attendance of mothers at Catholic parochial schools, colleges and universities.
Today, the same doctrinal opposition to birth control among the Amish results in Amish families having between seven and nine children. It’s a similar figure for the Hutterites and Brazos de Dios communities.
Fourth, the New Agrarians mistakenly placed their faith in aggressive social engineering, either by government-backed education and technology systems for farmers, or the quasi coercion of the “superior men” who thought the way ahead was primarily in the application of technological innovation to farming.
As Carlson points out, the 20th-century is littered with disastrous social engineering projects such as the old Soviet Union’s “new Soviet man”, Nazi Germany’s “new Aryan man”, or the US agrarians’ “new farmer”. The latter concept involved harsh condemnation of existing farmers, use of government tax and financial incentives and penalties and indoctrination of farmers with the new “ideal vision” – the same as is today being used by Australian governments to force the restructuring of rural industries.
Indeed, the Old Order Amish are master social engineers, but they refuse to apply the coercive power of the state.
Fifth, many of the new agrarians opposed sectarian, other-worldly Christianity, regarding it as an impediment to progress.
Yet, as Carlson notes, “only a commitment to a radical ‘separation from the world’, with eyes firmly fixed heavenward, gave sufficient power to individuals in communities to overcome the lures, appetites, and pressures of the full industrialisation of life and to motivate rural dwellers to become good stewards of both land and community.”
While mainline Protestant and Catholic agrarian movements faltered, what have succeeded are unofficial Catholic and “high Protestant” communities organised on a quasi-monastic model, where subsistence agriculture and craftsmanship thrive in the context of vows of poverty, obedience, charity and marriage.
Paradoxically, their guiding principle of separation from the world and an all-consuming focus on the next life has energised self-sufficient farming, human fertility, ecological awareness and the creation of working homes in this life.
Sixth, all the new agrarians understood that the heart of the problem was the stripping away of functions from the household by industrial society, yet many of the new agrarians embraced state-backed education against home education. They ignored or denied the one “secular” change that has invigorated working homes over the past 30 years: namely, home schooling.
They all tried to recreate functional homes using government-operated schools or elite-run extensions services.
An important measure of success for the new agrarians was family fertility. In 1991, home-schooling families had on average 3.43 children, compared to two for the nation at large. In Canada it is 3.46, more than double the national average. In 1970 there were 20,000 US children being homed-schooled, now it is two million!
Home education has spawned subsistence gardening and the keeping of livestock.
The Brazos de Dios discovered “home births” in the 1970s, then began “home schooling”, then “urban gardens”, followed by migration to rural settlements in Colorado and Texas. Tasting one “household freedom” led to the desire for more.
Carlson concludes that, while most new agrarian projects failed, “If understood at its core as the effort to rebuild working homes sheltering fertile and economically autonomous families, then the new agrarians’ vision survives and even expands on the social margins at this century’s end: in the separatist, other worldly, pietistic fundamentalism of Christianity and Judaism; and in the revolutionary cells that constitute home schools.
“The irony is that perhaps these are the very last places the new agrarians thought to look for answers.”