Agrarianism and the Counterrevolution

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Agrarianism and the Counterrevolution:
A Review of The Essential Agrarian Reader, edited by Norman Wirzba

reviewed by Matthew Raphael Johnson



i.

In Anton Chekov’s nearly unread masterpiece, The Black Monk, the anti-hero, Kovrin, is told by an apparition that he is a genius, that, through his knowledge of science and philosophy, he is bringing humanity to its proper purpose thousands of years earlier than evolution, unaided, would have done. Chekov himself was a prophet of the scientistic modern age and a strong student of Nietzsche. However, this short novel brings the problems of modernity and the worship of science into sharp relief.

Though it is unclear in the novel, what Kovrin is being told is that, through science, the coming age of plenty is soon to be at hand. In fact, the promises made to Kovrin by the apparition that is without question a demon, are shockingly similar to the self-definition of the antiChrist in Vladimir Solovyev’s famous A Brief Tale of Antichrist; that is, “God” has chosen people on this earth to move evolution forward, to create an order based on knowledge, held by an oligarchy of science, which will solve the problems of this temporal life.

In The Black Monk, Kovrin is convinced by the demonic apparition that he is a scientific genius, and that the world–the herd–does not understand him or people like him. His obvious mental illness, admitted throughout, is merely the product of not being part of the herd, and is the mere outer coating of a life of greatness and “service to humanity,” or so he’s told.

Kovrin marries a young, frail and pious girl named Tania. Tania is representative of old Russia, agrarian and Orthodox (in Russian literature, Russia is usually represented in a simple girl of some kind, usually one who ends up rejected). She marries our anti-hero because she is convinced he is destined for greatness, and, though it is left unsaid, he makes up for what is lacking in her rather meaningless life.

Kovrin, possessed by the apparition, proceeds to torture her to divorce, mocking her and her father. Believing that Tania is her inferior, he drives her to despair, and eventually, he takes up with an older woman. Developing a hemorrhage in the throat, Kovrin dies in a pool of blood, and is told by his apparition that this death is necessary because even his body cannot stand being controlled by a spirit of such genius.


It is a shame that Chekov, despite his many problems, remains largely unread, and few have even heard of The Black Monk. What is significant here, of course, is that this book, in many respects, sums up the criticisms of modernity made by agrarians and agrarianism.

Agribusiness, that is, the systematic mechanization of agriculture into massive megafarms usually specializing in one or two crops and organized for export and mass production, has created for itself the image that it is legitimate because thought such mechanizations the likes of ConAgra and ADM will soon feed the world, and, though genetic engineering and other applications of technology, agribusiness will be able to create cheap food for the entire planet. Agrarianism takes exception to this, and the essays found in The Essential Agrarian Reader are most commonly grouped around the various aspects of this critique.

ii.

There are two models of social organization that are dealt with in this set of essays. The first is the world of agribusiness, or at least, the world typified by agribusiness. Here, massive, vertically integrated and scientifically ratified organizations of agricultural production seek increasing markets at home and abroad. The land is used to its maximum, and, as the soils deplete, increasing numbers of chemicals are used to maintain its fertility. With this, of course, comes a host of what economists esoterically call externalizations: a massive infrastructure of roads, transport, warehouses, chain stores, and a host of other structures that create the girding for international trade and transport.

The second model is one roughly called agrarian: a rural landscape made up of small farms largely created and maintained for the local market, requiring little investment in national and international infrastructure. These smaller farms are owned by families or local cooperatives, and are structured according to the limits of the local climate, landscape and, of course, the needs of the local community.

The former model justifies itself according to the common theory of utilitarianism: such industries can create more food at a cheaper price, free of parasites and diseases. Massive food producing conglomerates are capable, with sufficient technology, to end hunger and made certain the consumer has a steady supply of cheap food, comprising a dizzying array of choices for every taste. The time of the family farm is over, and the drudgery of farm life will give way to a much more rewarding life of service in the clean suburbs.


Agrarianism counters by challenging, among other things, the validity of the utilitarian argument. Agrarians point to the failures of monocultures and the endless supply of diseases that accompany such unnatural strategies. Various works over the years have strongly disputed the claim that large, corporately owned farms can produce food and other products cheaper and more plentifully than smaller units. The first class essay, “All Flesh is Grass: A Hopeful Look at the Future of Agrarianism,” by Gene Logsdon, spends a great deal of time explaining the mechanics of farming with a minimum of work, relying on herds of cattle to maintain the integrity of the land rather than the specific acts of cultivation. Even among farmers, the strategies of Logsdon, proven on his own farm as well as such well known figures as Bob Evans, are little known. The fact is, as explained in such books as Front Porch Farmer, that the use of cattle herds can perform many of the tasks normally taken collectively as “cultivation.” Manuring, weed control and many other aspects of the “drudgery” of farming can easily be taken care of by cattle herds. The fact is that nature herself can take care of many tasks unthinkingly taken up by men.

Agrarians take issue with the nature of integration, where several companies control the entire structure of production and distribution, from seed to dinner plate. Far beyond the natural revulsion brought about by the fact that a handful of investors control mush of the world’s food supply, and the natural reaction against the notion that the world’s chicken market is brought into existence by merely three breeding stocks, the major problem with the industrialist argument concerning food production is that the structure itself is inefficient, and is structures not from a specific plan of international trade, but rather has been pieced together as problem after problem arose in the national development of agribusiness.

One can question the utility and efficiency of an international system where megafarms are worked by minimum wage labor, and costs of farm life, such as pollution and liability are passed off to local farmers whose existence then becomes attached to the megacorporation. The produce is maintained by huge stocks of chemicals, and is transported around the country by thousands of thousands of trucks, demanding safe roads and bridges, causing endless traffic problems and eating up tons of fuel. The maintenance of huge warehouses and the entire infrastructure of national and international trade, amounting to billions of dollars a week. Not to mention issues such as advertising, political lobbying and the maintenance of a massive scientific establishment dedicated to getting more and more out of the land in increasingly unnatural and alchemical methods.

Nicholas Eliopoulos, scientist and theologian, has this to say about modern processed foods:

All of our vegetables and fruits today are grown with poisons, though poisonous fertilizers, under poisonous sprays and in poisoned atmospheres. The multitude of poisons become a part of the crop. Next, the warehouses spray other poisons on them, keep them in a chamber with a poisonous chemical atmosphere in lieu of the more expensive cooling, or coat them with a dangerous preservative wax. All our crops, as well as the food and water of our livestock found in lakes, rivers and wells which permit through the moisture of the ground, are subjected to industrial wastes, organic, inorganic and radioactive. (Thine Health, Logos/Slovo Press, 1981, 172; this large work is very hard to find, but Mr. Eliopoulos can be contacted at POB 65 Oak Park, IL 60303).
Contrast this to the local farm, connected to the local market and other local farmers, utilizing a minimum of transport and natural methods of insecticide. It is very difficult to see the much vaunted “efficiency” in the megafarm mentality.

iii.

This is only the beginning however. Industrialism and urbanism are themselves saturated with moral and philosophical content. Consider this: pretend you’re in Walmart. What do you see? Shelves and shelves of items, thousands of choices, all at a relatively low price. One can shop in pleasant surroundings and can be helped in a minute by any staff member. One can take care of a week’s worth of shopping in one store, at one time. Things that decades ago were luxuries for the rich are now easily obtainable by any middling citizen of America. Apparently, capitalism has won, and has provided even the poorest in America with the possibility of a lifetime of labor-saving devices, entertainment and cheap food. Immanuel Kant would call this a “phenomenon.” The problem is that behind a phenomenon is a noumenon, that is, the basis from which the sense impressions are generated. Sense impressions do not exist by themselves, generated out of nowhere, but derive from something, something, frankly, more real than the sense impression itself. I’m going a bit beyond what Kant would agree with, but one can say that the purpose of philosophical inquiry (and I use this broadly) is to discover, not merely this coherence of sense impressions, but rather the origin of the impression itself.

Starting from there, the shadows on the Walmart cave are seen as just that. One can now turn around to see who is castig those shadows, and might even be able to converse with the caster and see what motivated him in so doing. What does Walmart look like then?

As the colorful items on the shelf begin to melt away in the light of truly critical inquiry, as the generic muzak fades, one sees the essence of modern capitalism. One sees the army of security personnel watching thousands of TV screens which monitor and document every move of every shopper. One sees the “walkers,” or spies hired by management to follow workers around, making sure they are working to full capacity. One sees corporate board room meetings where the image of Walmart is discussed. One sees the offices of an ad agency, where the image of corporate America is created and broadcast to the world. One sees thousands of minimum wage workers toiling at the megafarms who supply Walmart with its cheap food. One sees well dressed lobbyists visiting the offices of Senators, Congressmen and staff members, arguing the merits of maintaining the privileges of megafarms and corporate America in general. One sees Walmart managers, who work on average 75 hours a week, monitored minute by minute by the array of cameras whose images are beamed throughout the corporate infrastructure of Sam’s empire.

In other words, what is being described is that the glittering display of cheap items is part of the realm of unreality. It is an alchemically induced illusion, where the images of the television, the manipulations of ad and PR agencies, and even the expectations of post-modern shoppers conspire to transmit a hologram, that of a peaceful, prosperous America, able to have cheap food and many gadgets promising one convenience or another, without ever really having to pay the bills in terms of resource depletion, suppression of wages and unionization, the destruction of the family farm and local retail stores, and the wars necessary to maintain a cheap supply of oil (among other things) to keep the production machine rolling. It is in this transmission of specifically crafted images that finally reaches the telos of ancient gnosis or the alchemical processing of entire populations to reflect the perspectival point of view of the ruling classes. In the ancient world of the Near East, the banks, or the center of the economy, were the temples, overseen by a god, or a fetishization of some social or natural force. The public veneration of this totem was a crude cover for the centralized control of the moneyed powers. The central reason why the Greek oligarchy put Socrates to death was that by arguing that the fetishized gods were a hoax, he was causing a run on the banks. The power of finance, from Nimrod to Hyde Park, has been cloaked in mystification, and this mystification, in the esoteria of the esoteria of the Freemasons, is the cover for oligarchical rule, the rule of matter over spirit, and the dogmatic alchemists mantra that matter is the cause of spirit and the cause of life, the very ontological basis of magick.

iv.

I’ve gone slightly afield. The purpose of this set of essays is to lay out a theoretical and practical ground for the re-emergence of the family farm, for a healthy provincialism expressed in a true stewardship for the land and local resources, and, importantly, a reorienting of priorities from the glittering hallucination of the Walmart shelf to the very health and well being of the land and of the local community. The essays presented here do that, and they do it well.

Agrarianism is not just about the protection of the land and the family farm. It would be a worthy endeavor if it were just that, but it is more. Agrarianism is a mindset. It is a mindset that prefers the quiet beauty of a sunset through the mountains over the Walmart shelf. It is a mindset that prefers the harvest festival to the television. It is a mindset that prefers true community, that is, a foundation of social life based on what one has in common, a close identity of interests and self-definitions, to the atomization of post-modern consumerism. It is a mindset that prefers reality to the image.

These are not just romantic slogans. Of course, there is nothing wrong with romance, for it is these quite natural connections to the land, to natural beauty, to a local landscape which, again quite naturally, conjures up feelings of wonder, enjoyment and belonging. Romance is the engine which drives agrarianism–not some feminine desire for the symbolic over the actual–but rather, a true sense of connection, the sense described by Tolstoy in his famous The Cossacks, a sense of love and integration rather than alienation, an alienation that comes from living in a world of images, images generated by elite rulers in secret settings for purposes even economists have yet to fathom. In agrarianism, the arrogance of Chekov’s anti-hero is replaced by the humility of the farmer who is intimately knowledgeable of his own limits, the limits of nature, and the limits of the locality. The artificially isolated consumer of the post-modern McEmpire is told that he lives in a world without limits, but the images that manifest that message are the creation of a massive infrastructure of manipulation, corporate greed and ideological brainwashing; none of it is actually real.

AntiChrist will appear in much the same manner as Cargill–he will tell a gullible world that he can feed all men, that he ill solve all ideological problems, end nationalism (of course), war and greed, if and only if they will bow down to him. The religions of the world will be all too quick to bow, a few of the ascetics will refuse, and will be called romantic obscurantists for so doing. May God grant that we be so obscurantist.