by Jon Magee
The history of farming is a colorful one—the farm has always been and will always be a bastion of chaos, a primary place where farmers try to impose their idea of order onto a natural landscape, and where a culture tries to impose its idea of order onto its farmers. Some call farmers the ‘midwives of nature’—it seems to me farmers today are more like the middle-men of nature, caught trying to work with their environment while also scrambling to compete in the market. On the one hand, that tension has been the undoing of many a poor farmer. On the other hand, at different times in history, that position has given farmers a great deal of power and responsibility, celebrated in many traditional cultures and increasingly in our modern cultures, as well.
David Graeber, an anthropologist and author, has a clearly-stated agenda when he writes about history: by looking at the rich heritage of the generations which came before us, it becomes clear that any status quo is very short-lived. Yes, alternatives have existed and will exist again. Armed with that knowledge, we can recognize our power to shape the future. In that same spirit, I hope to use this space each month to consider a facet of our agricultural heritage.
Some episodes read like a great, tragic novel. The New Deal, for instance, was actually just as catastrophic for poor farmers as the Depression it sought to address, forcing a giant wave of migration out of the countryside while financing new equipment for the wealthiest landowners. In the same way, the collectivization of farms in the early USSR was a sad tale of the best intentions gone awry—leading to a death toll somewhere between 4 million and 20 million villagers.
Other episodes of history show the spontaneously recurring themes of egalitarianism, self-governance, and moderation. When European colonists landed on the Atlantic shores of North America, the agrarian villages they found were not terribly different from the ones which filled the countryside of Europe: property was held communally, agriculture was subsistence-based, unemployment was unknown, and leisure time was plentiful. Neither of these cultures had it ‘easy,’ and neither was perfect. But in the case of medieval Europe, this era was remarkably peaceful and just (when compared with the periods of the great empires which surround that epoch—the Roman empire before, and the various colonial empires after). When considering the European village and the Native American tribe, one wonders how distant cultures formed themselves around such similar principles. European villages, remote and mostly autonomous, were the vestiges of the old manor system which broke down around the time of the plague. It has likewise been proposed that the agrarian, egalitarian, ‘hippie’-like cultures of the coastal Native Americans may have resulted from the collapse of earlier urban cultures such as Cahokia.
In the cases of medieval Europe and pre-colonial America, as in so many other cases, agrarian societies did not arise by chance, nor did they arise by royal decree. These arrangements derive from the hard work of everyone involved, the work of resisting the authorities, the work of self-government, the work of sustaining their villages.
I find these little corners of history very relevant to the present day and our struggle for social justice. Over the coming months, I’ll paint a more detailed picture of these historical moments, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.