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Spring 2017

A New Look at Ransom’s ‘Land’

book cover imageLand!: The Case for an Agrarian Economy
by John Crowe Ransom.
Edited by Jason Peters, with an Introduction by Jay T. Collier.
University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.
Cloth, 156 pages, $25.

Mark G. Malvasi

In Land!, his classic statement of agrarian economic thought, John Crowe Ransom offered a trenchant critique of capitalism. Writing in the early 1930s, at the onset of the worst economic crisis in American history, Ransom proposed not only a return to the land but also a retreat from the market as the surest means of ending unemployment. Ransom seems to have assumed that capitalism, at least in its corporate form, could not and should not be saved. Only an independent existence on the land could shield Americans from poverty and want, liberating them once and for all from the vicissitudes an economy that, from time to time, rendered them superfluous.

The agrarian economic program that Ransom put forth recalls the Jeffersonian image of the unfettered yeoman farmer, hardworking, virtuous, and free to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Rejecting the market economy, Ransom explained that:

Agrarianism is the economy of self-sufficient men living on the land and taking subsistence directly from it; old-fashioned and slow, but safe; and quite possible for everyone in the economic society if there is land enough. Capitalism is the economy of men who make not subsistence but money; brilliant when they make much money, as often; immensely more productive than agrarianism because of the principle of specialization, and creative of ingenious goods that are impossible to the other; but risky, because men live only by trade, and are at the mercy of a trading society over which individuals have no control. (117)

The antebellum southern thinker George Fitzhugh anticipated Ransom’s distrust of the market, but at the same time warned against the exclusive dependence on agriculture. Unlike Ransom, Fitzhugh did not wish to abandon the market by reverting to a subsistence economy, which he thought would bring ignorance, privation, and misery in its wake, a conclusion that Ransom himself had reached by 1945. Instead, Fitzhugh advocated the growth of small cities and the development of local manufacturing as necessary complements to farming. In his mind, stability, prosperity, and liberty rested on isolation from the market, which only economic diversification could assure.

Ransom, by contrast, insisted on the practice of diversity within the agrarian economy. The farmer must be “a man of many occupations.” Agrarian, rather than commercial, farmers were the last free men in America. If they did not concern themselves too much with making money, they could design and execute each of the tasks they performed. They controlled the whole job and answered to no one save themselves and their God. “Nobody else in the whole economic society,” Ransom observed, “is in that position.” They owned, administered, and worked their private enterprises, the very models of propertied citizens.

To even greater benefit, agrarian farming also enabled men to experience the full spectrum of the human condition. They were “the most whole,” Ransom later wrote in 1936, and “therefore the most wholesome” of men. The social relations of an agrarian community were personal, moral, and neighborly, not perfunctory, juridical, and economic. Unlike factory work, farm labor of the agrarian sort was not intent on enslaving men to a system that demanded their perfect adherence in order to obtain absolute efficiency and maximum output. “This consideration,” Ransom acknowledged, “is a blow at the modern ideal of maximum efficiency … ; the agrarian economy must develop its own kind of maximum efficiency, which is a different kind.” The traditional agrarian economy was, by nature, inefficient, its proprietors savoring the privileged liberty to work or not, and in their ample spare time to read or doze, to hunt, fish, or contemplate the splendor of creation.

Behind Ransom’s assertion that the agrarian order subverted the division of labor lay the even deeper conviction that agrarianism could resolve the conflict between the individual and society. Ransom conjectured that if the farmer were

his own carpenter, painter, roadmaker, forester, meatpacker, woodcutter, gardener, landscape gardener, nurseryman, dairyman, poulterer, and handyman—then he has a fair-sized man’s job on his hands which will occupy him sufficiently in all seasons. His hard work will come in the spring and summer, but if his work slackens after that, no confirmed lover of nature will begrudge him a little leisure time for hunting, fishing, and plain country meditation.

In the agrarian society that Ransom imagined, the antagonism between mental and physical labor vanished, and men worked willingly and joyfully, without compulsion.

Unlike Karl Marx, Ransom did not contemplate or countenance the sustained development of the forces of production or the continued expansion of material prosperity that Marx thought was certain to follow. It was not that Ransom predicated his agrarian social and economic order on material scarcity and deprivation. Instead, he depended on the bounty that men, with a minimum of effort, could coax from nature to satisfy all human needs. He hoped that an agrarian civilization would at last enable men to accept the limitations that nature imposed on them and to halt their incessant struggle to extend their dominion over it—to cease “pioneering on principle,” as he had written in the Agrarian collection of 1930, I’ll Take My Stand. Perhaps the greatest advantage of the agrarian way of life, Ransom suggested, was the restraint that it imposed on human ambition.

Implicit in Ransom’s analysis is the return to an older definition of property. For Ransom, property must remain in the same family and provide security across the generations. To free Americans from their bondage to the market, property must cease to be an instrument designed to generate individual wealth. “The father handed down the farm to the son;” Ransom explained, “the farm was already successfully going, and the son was already familiar with the formula; if he shifted the balance among its various activities he did it cautiously and empirically.” A subsistence economy alone could support an independent, humane, and cooperative way of life. The United States could afford the luxury of freedom. Americans were already on their way to securing a more opulent economic future than was historically allotted to the other peoples of the earth. “The per capita natural wealth of this country,” Ransom declared in a different essay, “is all but beyond comparison greater than that of other nations, and it is astonishing to find economists concluding that its development can proceed only by tactics which are harsh and sacrificial of human rights.”

Nature had favored, or cursed, the United States with too much land. Without the formation of an agrarian movement to enforce subsistence farming, Ransom concluded that Americans would find it difficult to overcome this potentially disabling endowment. If commercial farming continued unabated, he argued in Land!, agriculture would succumb to a crisis of overproduction, as industry already had. Under those circumstances, Ransom affirmed, only the surrender of the American commitment to liberty and independence, the acceptance of a planned economy, and possibly the state ownership of property would avert disaster.

Advocating small-scale production and economic and political decentralization, neither Ransom nor his fellow Agrarians ever made it clear how they intended to restore private property as the material foundation of social order and civic virtue. By 1945, in fact, Ransom had come to reconsider the efficacy and desirability of the Agrarian movement itself. In “Art and the Human Economy,” published in The Kenyon Review, he admitted that he now believed the imposition of agrarianism was an “inhuman punishment” for a people who “in the natural course of things have left the garden far behind.” Yet, despite the shortcomings of Ransom’s economic thought, and despite his own subsequent misgivings, he asked the right questions. Dismissed as provincial reactionaries afraid to face the future, Ransom and the Agrarians mounted a serious challenge to the moral authority of progress, which in retrospect seems discerning to say the least. They denounced the technological conquest of nature and called instead for the ownership of a small piece of land that would confer a modest but substantial livelihood and would, at the same time, nurture the responsibility and the skills needed to preserve such a competence.

These arrangements, Ransom understood, could not prosper under advanced capitalism. As corporate enterprise increasingly overwhelmed small farmers and businessmen throughout the twentieth century, they became fearful, suspicious, and desperate, in time yielding to the worst impulses in modern American political life: anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and racism. The Agrarians did not solve these problems. No one did or has. Yet in questioning the progressive ideologies that still enthrall liberals and conservatives alike with visions of inexhaustible power and relentless growth, Ransom and the others affirmed the goodness of life without also disavowing its tragedy. Theirs is a legacy not of alluring though unsustainable expansion and wealth but of humane limits and durable hope. 

Mark G. Malvasi is the Isaac Newton Vaughan Professor of History at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.

Posted: June 18, 2017

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