Furthest Right

Agrarian versus Urban

We live by dichotomies; from the separation of self and world, we are constantly drawing lines between things to separate fundamentally different outlooks. Unlike the people in this world who spend their days wishing for unity of all things, realists recognize these dichotomies as useful.

In American history, we have many splits. Protestant versus Catholic; rich versus poor; liberal versus conservative and finally, one that not only runs through our history but explains our attitudes today: agrarian versus urban.

Our Civil War, for example, was divided by this separation. City people favored rules that treated each person like an interchangeable part; rural people favored the kind of hierarchy one finds among animals and the topography of fields. The two sides faced each other with incompatible values.

To this day, we divide ourselves by our values — some are more geared toward the urban metroplex, and others toward the countryside with its more complex but more relaxed rules:

In apartments you get to know your neighbours much more intimately than perhaps they or you would like. So you learn to keep your relationship one of formal distance, respectful but not friendly.

You learn not to express your independence too readily by playing music late or having parties, or running a bath at midnight. And you learn that there are overarching institutions that decide things for you, such as whether to plant flowers in the communal garden or how much to pay the concierge.

In short, you learn to give up a bit of liberty in return for a more social, communal life.

Obviously this has an impact on society as a whole and I am certain that the fact French and other European societies are more socially-minded, both less free and less individualistic, is linked to the habits of apartment living.

Though whether people live in flats because they are more communal-minded, or vice-versa, they are more communally-minded because they live in flats, is moot. – BBC

Since most people live in either suburbs or urban apartments, explaining agrarian principles becomes harder. However, if we look at agrarianism as an “organic” ideology, or one without a central organizing concept but that is instead built around a process and cycle, we can see how agrarianism influences more than our farming preferences.

Organic ideologies are not, like political ideologies, based around a single principle in an abstract and universal sense. They incorporate many disparate and unruly parts, which is why they are hard to explain to people trained in modern ideology, but together these parts create an “environment” instead of a singular principle to which everyone is dedicated.

For example, Southern Agrarianism homes in on the idea of a type of society; not a particular civilization, or time, but a way you build that civilization by investing people into certain activities over others:

The Southern Agrarians bemoaned the increasing loss of Southern identity and culture to industrialization.

They believed that the traditional agrarian roots of the United States, which had reigned since the nation’s founding in the 18th century, were important to its nature. Their manifesto was a critique of the rapid industrialization and urbanization during the first few decades of the 20th century in the southern United States. It posited an alternative based on a return to the more traditionally rural and local culture, and agrarian American values.

The group opposed the changes in the US that were leading it to become more urban, national/international, and industrial. Because the book was published at the opening (1930) of what would eventually become the Great Depression, some viewed it as particularly prescient. The book was anti-communist. I’ll Take My Stand was originally criticized as a reactionary and romanticized defense of the Old South and the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Some critics considered it to be moved by nostalgia.

But, in more recent years, scholars such as Carlson, Scotchie, Eugene Genovese, and others have re-evaluated the book in light of the modern problems of highly urbanized/industrialized societies. They acknowledge the effects which such urban-technological-industrial systems exert on human society as a whole, as well as individuals, the environment, various social issues, politics, economics, etc. Today, the Southern Agrarians are lauded regularly in the Southern Partisan. Some of their social, economic, and political ideas have been refined and updated by writers such as Allan C. Carlson and Wendell Berry. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has published books which further explore the ideas of the Agrarians.

“All the articles bear in the same sense upon the book’s title-subject: all tend to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way; and all as much as agree that the best terms in which to represent the distinction are contained in the phrase, Agrarian versus Industrial. … Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian, which does not stand in particular need of definition. An agrarian society is hardly one that has no use at all for industries, for professional vocations, for scholars and artists, and for the life of cities.

Technically, perhaps, an agrarian society is one in which agriculture is the leading vocation, whether for wealth, for pleasure, or for prestige – a form of labor that is pursued with intelligence and leisure, and that becomes the model to which the other forms approach as well as they may. But an agrarian regime will be secured readily enough where the superfluous industries are not allowed to rise against it.

The theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations, and that therefore it should have the economic preference and enlist the maximum number of workers.” “Introduction: A Statement of Principles” to their 1930 book I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian TraditionSouthern Agrarian

The above is from Southern Agrarian, a promising blog from Stephen Clay McGeehee, who also blogs at Confederate Colonel, a blog about the glories of an agrarian, honor-based, morally upright society.

In the agrarian view, a whole life — what we might call an organic life — is the only truly aware one. The individual is connected to the environment, and to the social order.

The urban view on the other hand isolates the individual from the social order, from nature and from anything but the immediate desires of the individual. Seasons? Air condition them. Time? Hide it under makeup and plastic surgery. Sadness? Bars, casual sex. Hierarchy? Conceal behind status symbols.

When we awaken to this view, we can see how the city itself is a false subset of reality. It is like a special occasion pretending to be the normal rules; if the behavior that prevailed on Christmas morning became the norm, it would lose its special-ness and society would become less effective. The city has some of this feel of the rules being suspended, but only while you’re in the city. Outside of it, the whole order applies again.

As a result, the city people destroy anything with context. They prefer the immediate, tangible, material and social; they fear that with too many connections to the world outside the city. This makes them foes of the agrarians, to the point of justifying just about any warfare against them.

The debate plays out now not in literal agrarians versus urbanites, but in people with naturalistic values against those with the humanistic values of the city:

Finns who gather in bars and cafes are dissecting the race, trying to take the measure of what is being called “the protest vote” and what it may mean for their future.

Finland is not alone. Anti-European Union and anti-immigration parties have been on the rise in Sweden, Italy, Hungary and the Netherlands in the past year, and more may follow. It is a worrisome trend for supporters of the union, and for efforts to safeguard the euro by offering emergency loans to the weakest member nations and to better coordinate budget and spending policies in the countries that use it. – NYT

Some want the values of the countryside: we all do what makes sense for where we are, and we take care of our land and our people, and let others run around the world chasing after abstract principles.

Those with more urban values want us to “all be one,” which is both a unity of values and a sense that if we’re following a delusional system, we are all tied together and we fall together. On the surface the idea is that this way, we don’t have anyone working against the system. Underneath, it’s the threat of collective punishment if we undermine ourselves.

Different solutions associate with either side. The city side wants to develop land; the agrarian, conserve it:

Although the future is uncertain, this much is clear: The salt ponds are going away. But there’s a debate over what takes their place, and both parties say they have lofty, environmentally friendly goals.

On one side, David Lewis, executive director of the environmental group Save the Bay: “I grew up here, in Palo Alto,” he says. “When I was a kid growing up, and there was still major salt production going on, the salt pile was a major landmark. It’s basically right next to the 101, and it was at least five or six stories high, and it looked like snow.”

On the other, urban planner Peter Calthorpe, whose plan to develop the salt ponds is fiercely opposed by Save the Bay: “I have a very personal connection because I grew up in Palo Alto,” says Calthorpe, one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism. “Growing up there, nobody ever went to the bay side,” Calthorpe continues. “When we wanted open space, we went to the hills. … In the peninsula, there’s very few places you can go and be in relationship to the bay.” – Grist

One way to conceive this values split is that the city is a human-only enterprise, with humanistic values to match, and is not only oblivious to anything beyond human control, but is threatened by that which is not under human control and thus tamed, domesticated and made “rational.” The goal of urban value systems is the individual.

The agrarian values system works in the opposite direction. Instead of all of life being a means to the end of an individual, there are other goals: community, family, nature, values and customs. All is a means to those ends, and the individual must adapt to the wilderness and community surrounding him or her. There is less power, and less freedom, but more support and clarity.

Could it be that our urban values occur when, like the dwellers in city apartments, we shut off awareness of all but the immediate impulse of our selves?

He says the brain appears to be organised into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic, or default, network.

The extrinsic portion of the brain becomes active when individuals are focused on external tasks, like playing sports or pouring a cup of coffee.

The default network churns when people reflect on matters that involve themselves and their emotions.

But the networks are rarely fully active at the same time. And like a seesaw, when one rises, the other one dips down.


Dr Josipovic has found that some Buddhist monks and other experienced meditators have the ability to keep both neural networks active at the same time during meditation – that is to say, they have found a way to lift both sides of the seesaw simultaneously. – BBC

Our choice of society type reflects not our external environment, but our internal one. If we have found a balance between self and world, the agrarian viewpoint is less threatening and more sensible; if we have found only the human world, ourselves and our social peers, then we cannot enter that world.

This division in values is not an imposed dichotomy. Instead, it describes two very basic approaches to the world: either we treat it as something of which we are part, or we decide that it is part of us, and treat it like a child or employee under our command.

As humanity looks for a way to balance its needs with the quest to stabilize and nurture our planet, we are starting to look at a level below laws and economics to basic cultural values. Through this process, we see a surge in agrarianism — and with it, I’ll bet, a surge in people paying attention to the world around them, again.

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