Southern Agrarianism, Distributism, and Its Discontents

As a traditional supporter of all things ancien regime, the Catholic church has always had an ambivalent relationship with industrialization, capitalism, and urbanization. The growth of cities creates a literate middle class, a group which invariably demands a greater role in determining the trajectory of their own lives, whether in the spiritual or temporal realm. While the hierarchy theoretically prefers a laity that is characterized by an informed orthodoxy, the truth is that a superstitious and illiterate populace residing in the countryside is much easier to deal with, since they don’t make the same intellectual or economic demands as educated city-dwellers.

The church’s city problem cities first started during the latter part of the middle ages (twelfth and thirteenth centuries), when Western European cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and the various Italian city-states started to come into their own as centers of economic and cultural activity. To the new city-dwellers, many of whom were literate to varying degrees in their local vernacular language, “heretical” movements like the Cathars seemed appealing, because such groups provided the laity to have more of an active role in their spiritual lives. The mendicants orders like the Dominicans and the Franciscans arose to minister to urbanites and keep them on the straight and narrow in terms of orthodoxy (The Friars: The Impact of the Mendicant Orders On Medieval Society by C.H. Lawrence is a good book if you want to know about the hows and whys of medieval mendicant orders).

However, the widespread societal changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and by the ideals of Enlightenment proved to be a challenge that the church could not or would not rise up to meet. Rather than devise new forms of religious life to better minister to the industrial working classes, the church simply demanded that the proverbial clock be turned back to medieval era pastoralism, a kinder, simpler era, without dehumanizing factories, labor militancy, or ideological rivals to church power.

The Catholic church’s love of the pastoral over the industrial had real-world consequences throughout the Catholic world. The Papal States, for example, were without a doubt the most backward, worst administered territories in nineteenth century Europe. The second to last pope-king of the Papal States, Gregory XVI, kept his domains underdeveloped on purpose because he feared the emergence of a middle class that would challenge his authority; he famously banned gaslights and railroads (both of which were considered basic services that a modern state ought to provide) from the Papal States, maintained the last Jewish ghetto in Western Europe, and refused to allow the teaching of secular subjects in schools. Gregory XVI cared nothing about improving the health and well-being of his subjects, as his main concern was ensuring that they remained too poor and ignorant to challenge his power.

We see a similar story elsewhere in the Catholic world, from the pathological use of plantation economics in Latin America well into the twentieth century to the ingrained backwardness found in Spain, Ireland, and Quebec until recently. All of this was the result of a clerical class that had an ideological and economic interest in staving off the effects of industrialization as long as possible, even if the masses suffered in the interim.

With this in mind, let’s talk about the Southern Agrarians, a group of white intellectuals based out of Vanderbilt University who bemoaned the loss of Southern distinctiveness in the face of modernization and industrialization in their famous manifesto 1930 I’ll Take My Stand:

While the Southern Agrarians claimed to speak for Southerners and Southern culture as a whole, they have nothing to say about the “Negro problem.” While the Southern Agrarians waxed on about how the United States was established as a nation of yeoman farmers, they neglect to mention that this country was also built on slave labor and that the economy of the twentieth century South was based on sharecropping and other forms of semi-peonage that operated under the assumption of a permanent racial caste system. To be fair, some of the Southern Agrarians like Robert Penn Warren later changed their minds on agrarianism, precisely because it seemed so inadequate in the wake of the problems raised by the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement, but that hasn’t stopped the tradition from finding an new set of admirers among Catholic traditionalists like Thomas Woods or the now deceased Eugene Genovese and his wife Elizabeth.

Hence, it’s not surprising not that G.K. Chesterton liked the cut of the Southern Agrarians jib, so to speak, as this approving review of I’ll Take My Stand shows:

While Chesterton admits that he doesn’t know enough about “the Negro problem” to comment fully on it, one wishes that he could have taken the onus to talk to black Southerners, the people who actually had to live under the type of system the Southern Agrarians raved about. Can you imagine Chesterton discussing “the Negro problem” with W.E.B. Du Bois, who would have been a professor at Atlanta University when I’ll Take My Stand was released? Given Chesterton’s distaste for assimilated English Jews, I think he’d be even more horrified by the prospect of dialoging with a Harvard educated “Negro,” especially one who didn’t hide his radicalism or kowtow to whites as a matter of principle.

I think that agrarianism, whether of the Southern or the Catholic type, is basically intellectual necrophilia. The ancien regime and the antebellum era are both dead and gone, and rightfully so. Any system that views other humans as property, whether as a slave, a serf, or a sharecropper is not a “tradition” that needs to be preserved. As awful as sweatshops are, the alternative of remaining a sustenance farmer is so dire that millions of people in developing countries would rather take their chances in cities than remain in rural poverty. In any case, there is simply not enough land available in the world for everyone to be a distributist-style property holder, especially given the alarming rates of environmental degradation. We will need new ideas, technological, social, and political to figure out how seven billion people and counting will be able to live on this planet in peace and dignity and agrarianism just isn’t going to be adequate.