Sunday, January 4, 2015

Back to the Basics: Agrarian History 101

Among the legion of items glaringly absent from the mainstream political discourse in the United States is agrarianism.  This was one of the bedrock principles of the founding era, but it's demise -- in hindsight -- was predictable.  Its return is vital.

Human access to fertile land and clean water, for eons, was an assumption.  But as populations coalesced and divisions of labor in urban centers increased, not everyone was a farmer or hunter-gatherer (or both), anymore.  By the time of the early Industrial Revolution, it became quite apparent to the Lovers of Control that depriving people of these basic resources was a method of social control.  Once people are thus "proletarianized," (no land, nothing to sell but their labor), Power -- in all it's various forms -- can set the conditions whereby individuals might survive.  The "proles" will then have to seek gainful employment on Power's terms.

In the English-speaking world, most people had a vital connection to the land until the rise of the Tudor monarchs.  This coincided with the expansion of capitalism out of the Mediterranean, into the eastern Atlantic and beyond, creating a proto-global economic system.  Where rural communalism had been the basic social structure up to that point, "landlords" -- those given special privilege in the hierarchy of feudalism -- began to realize that agriculture could be made more efficient by growing New World crops like corn and minimizing labor expenses.  Rather than growing "food for the realm," landlords retained a small number of farmers to grow profits.  This made food production more efficient, and those who were allowed to remain on the land largely profited, as well.  But the vast majority of those rural communities went up in smoke (sometimes literally) when farmers who were seen as superfluous to the purposes of wealth accumulation were sent packing.  If they refused to leave, their homes would simply be burned down as they looked on.  This majority became homeless, landless, and were at the mercy of the elite-controlled market forces -- i.e., proletarianized.  They had nothing left to sell but their labor.

The old feudal system had at least a facade of mutual obligations up and down the social hierarchy, but as the capitalist revolution continued to gain ground, ownership of the land became nearly absolute, and these landowners could and did restrict access to those resources.  The rural folk who did not "make the cut" found themselves roaming the highways and byways searching for seasonal labor, often begging, or they headed for London, Edinborough, or other urban centers to try and sell their labor.

With the expansion of Britain into the global economic game of Empire, a new class seized the center of power.  Known as the "Glorious Revolution," in 1688 the merchant-banker-landowning class, (AKA the "bourgeoisie"), gained control of the British government creating an entity generally known as "King-in-Parliament," where the monarch would now have to share power with them.  Obligations to the peasant-artisan (AKA"working class") were minimized.

The empire uprooted indigenous villagers in a the New World, as well.  These villagers fought back and found themselves out-numbered and out-gunned.  Deracinated individuals from the Old Country (or their descendants), jumped at the chance to obtain some fertile land and fresh water to realize their dream of independence from dire poverty, obligation, and a brutal work-cycle forced on them when they (or their descendants) had lost their access to such resources.  A desperate struggle between these Euro-Americans and Native Americans defending their own access to land and water ensued which continues to this day.  The open violence of this struggle continues in Latin America, but it has largely moved into the courtroom in the U.S.

Often, these Anglo-Celts began their New World experience by working as slaves (indentured servitude) for several years as the price for their passage to America.  Because the British expansionist power structure needed inexpensive "shock troops" to continue the process of appropriating land from the Indians, this nascent class of agrarian producers was given some measure of self-determination and, because of the distances involved, they were able to take for themselves still more independence.

By the mid-eighteenth century, this agrarian class, many of whom were fairly well-educated -- they had read of the Demos of the Greek city-states, of the Roman Republic's representative government, of the Italian city-states of the Renaissance -- and they understood the importance of access to resources in the struggle for self-determination (AKA "independence").  If one can produce one's own food supply, one's life will be much more stable and much less threatened than if one has nothing to sell but your labor to obtain needed sustenance.  The subjugation of African slave labor -- among the most brutal of labor systems ever devised by humankind -- helped seal the deal.  There was now a permanent underclass that could be forced to produce wealth almost unconditionally, allowing more self-determination for the Euro-American Anglo-Celts as they were not needed for that purpose.  The socio-economic creation of "race" allowed for social control, dividing the producing class by skin color and ethnic origin, not unlike the way livestock is divided by breed and provenance.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the new republic of the United States had grown into a major producer of food as well as staple crops through the plantation complex.  But the Industrial Revolution, fed by machinery, immigrant labor, banker finance, and the U.S. Civil War, boomed.
Immigrants -- usually deprived of their access to fertile land and fresh water in Europe and China -- came by the millions.  Cities expanded at unprecedented rates.  The rise of Industrial Capital gave new impetus to appropriating lands already appropriated from the natives by the agrarian class.

By 1920, the majority of people in the U.S. lived in cities.  To resist virtual enslavement, urban artisans had joined together to form labor unions utilizing the only resource they had other than their labor: each other.  The war over control and ownership of the means of production was full-throttle at this point, although the First World War had given the power structure an excuse to purge and/or outlaw those who refused to accept the appropriation of the wealth they produced with their labor.  The economic crash of 1929 was particularly devastating because so many people were city-dwellers and access to fertile land and fresh water had not been part of the urban planning, much less an urban social contract.

By the time the Great Depression was at its nadir in the mid-1930s, dire want sparked the realization that access to fertile soil and clean water could alleviate much suffering.  This neo-agrarian "back-to-the-land" movement remained in the shadows, however, as government used its access to credit (another, parallel story), to create infrastructure jobs for the society.

All went by the boards, however, with American involvement in the Second World War.  In the aftermath of that sublime conflagration, a superficial consensus of conformity to a bourgeois-dominated social order emerged in the U.S.  Power declared as its enemy any regime on the planet that might question this bourgeois domination -- a phenomenon reminiscent of the appropriation of lands from Native American peoples.  At this point, agriculture began to embrace the industrialization that had spawned other industries in the previous century.  By the 1980s, the slogan "Get big or get out" could be seen on t-shirts and billboards throughout the American Midwest.  The American Agriculture Movement, a last gasp of the old independent agrarian class, breathed its last with the "Tractorcade" to the Washington, D.C. mall in 1978.

Access to essential resources for the "rank-and-file" was nevertheless nurtured by members of the '60s' and '70s' counterculture, giving rise to a new "back-to-the-land" movement.  Urban gardens and farmers' markets have expanded on this vision in recent years, and such spaces are beginning to be incorporated into American cities from coast to coast.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the agrarian movement -- access to arable land and fresh water -- for people traditionally categorized as the "working class."  The whole concept of the "working class" is flawed in that it implies that all most people are good for is producing wealth for landowners or factory owners.  People, on the whole, are "good" for much more than that, but most have never really been given the chance to find out for themselves in the modern world; indeed, most do not even consider pursuing such a goal realistic.  This is a travesty and a tragedy, and it is completely unnecessary. 

Just as liberating enslaved people of African descent in the nineteenth century gave rise to sophisticated art and literature as well as advances in science and medicine -- phenomena such as the Harlem Renaissance, the work of people like George Washington Carver or Booker T. Washington, blues, jazz, rock and roll, and on and on -- liberating the so-called "working class" from forty-plus hours of drudgery every week would produce a cultural flowering the likes of which we can scarcely imagine.  The return of agrarianism and true independence points in this direction.  I think it essential to take this journey.  The legacy of agrarianism holds great potential for realizing our true human potential and independence from power systems that squelch such things, but it is also necessary for the survival of our species, and possibly our planet, as well.