Agrarianism Without Agriculture?

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The ever-surprising Ralph Nader has recently been reading some paleo-conservative sources, and has written a book entitled Unstoppable; the Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. In the Acknowledgements at the end, he specifically thanks Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative think tank, for keeping in print a tome from the 1930s called Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence. Nader devotes the seventh chapter of his book to a discussion of this volume. He quotes Edward Shapiro’s 1999 foreword at some length:

In his 1999 foreword to the reissued edition, historian Edward S. Shapiro called Who Owns America? “one of the most significant conservative books published in the United States during the 1930s” for its “message of demographic, political, and economic decentralization and the widespread ownership of property” in opposition “to the growth of corporate farming, the decay of the small town, and the expansion of centralized political and economic authority.” ……

In this mix, there was espoused a political economy for grass-roots America that neither Wall Street nor the socialists nor the New Dealers would find acceptable. It came largely out of the agrarian South, casting a baleful eye on both Wall Street and Washington, D. C. To these decentralists, the concentrated power of bigness would produce its plutocratic injustices whether regulated through the centralization of political authority in Washington or left to its own monopolistic and cyclical failures. They were quite aware of both the corporate state fast maturing in both Italy and Nazi Germany and the Marxists in the Soviet Union ……

Nor did they believe that a federal government with sufficient political authority to modestly tame the plutocracy and what they called “monopoly capitalism” could work, because its struggle would end either in surrender or with the replacing of one set of autocrats with another. As Shapiro wrote in the foreward, “while the plutocrats wanted to shift control over property to themselves, the Marxists wanted to shift this control to government bureaucrats. Liberty would be sacrificed in either case. Only the restoration of the widespread ownership of property, Tate said, could ‘create a decent society in terms of American history.’”

Although the decentralists were dismissed by their critics as impractical ….. their views have a remarkable contemporary resonance given today’s globalized gigantism, absentee control, and intricate corporate statism, which are undermining both economies and workers. They started with the effects of concentrated corporate power and its decades-long dispossession of farmers and small business. They rejected abstract theories by focusing instead on such intensifying trends as the separation of ownership from control; the real economy of production in contrast to the manipulative paper economy of finance; and the growth of “wage slavery,” farm tenancy, and corporate farming. One can only imagine what they would say today! (Nader, pp. 139-141.)

I apologize for the long quote. These people advocated doing away with the “joint stock corporation” for the most part, to be replaced by cooperatives. I’m not sure about the liability of members of these cooperatives, but that’s a major issue. Without limited liability, I would hesitate to co-invest in any project unless all the partners were as liquid and wealthy as myself, otherwise guess who ends up holding the bag! And it is to be noted that many insurance companies, and some savings and loans, including, until the 1980s, all federally chartered ones, were in fact “mutual” and owned by their depositors or policy holders.

They did not succeed as far as agricultural land was concerned. The concentration of agricultural land under fewer and fewer owners, and even more the oligopolies of processing food through such entities as Cargill, Tyson, and Archer Daniels Midland, proceeded apace. But “widely distributed property ownership” resurfaced on another front; the urban-suburban one. The New Deal first chartered the Federal Housing Administration to underwrite and guarantee loans for homes, and in Truman’s time the Veterans Administration and other reforms brought this regime into full flower. So instead of their forty acres and a mule, people got their ¼ acre and an automobile, the only practical way to travel from their ¼ acre to wherever they wanted to go.

Eventually people came to see their ¼ acre with a house on it as an “investment,” and further, a “source of wealth.” But this was not a truly agrarian source of wealth. Farms depend for their value on the quality of their soil and their productivity as farms. They are truly commercial real estate. But residences depend for their value only to a minor degree on what is on the property itself, but rather on what is around it; and suburbanites demanded that covenants, or the Government in the form of City Hall or County Hall, control their neighbors and what is around them. Part of the reason for living in the suburbs, after all, is the presence of trees and green space. (The suburbanites have therefore been friendly to the environmental cause, as long as it did not touch their automobiles.) There was also the factor that just as printing money dilutes its value, “printing” a large number of houses in an area dilutes their value as well. And, the more development, the more traffic comes to resemble that of the centralized portion of the city and one’s automobile gets stuck in it. Fact: the borough of Irvine, where my office is, imposes a “cap and trade” system on those who would desire to build or repair commercial structures, and what one buys in this marketplace is not carbon or pollution, but potential car trips that one’s project might be potentially using. The suburban model, in the end, demanded that to preserve suburban values, that the building of suburbs be stopped! That’s the irony of the whole thing.

Howard Ahmanson of Fieldstead and Company, a private management firm, has been interested in these issues for many years.



















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Distributism, anew!

This is an interesting article and it parallels what I am hearing from those on the Left and the Right who believe that the world's wealth is being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. The Right wants to blame socialism and the Left wants to blame capitalist greed. The truth is they are both partially right, and partially wrong. The concentration of wealth began when those in the late 19th century, who became economically successful beyond their wildest dreams, discovered that you could control the levers of government power to make sure things stayed that way. The Left said, you can fix that by empowering government--in the name of the people--to take back resources to benefit the whole of society. The problem was the only ones who benefited were the bureaucrats and those well-connected to them. What Nader and others (Alperovitz and Kurland) appear to be flirting with is something called distributism. The old Southern agrarians, and others of the early 20th century, toyed with ideas around cooperatives, widely distributed land ownership, and some even advocated things like worker owned companies. Unfortunately, some of their ideas were based more on wishful nostalgia for a perceived golden past which never existed. With two world wars, a Great Depression, and a Cold War later, they were left in the dust so we never had a chance to let their ideas ripen via challenging debate into meaningful proposals. The more current version of distributism is far less provincial and has transnational possibilities. It is significantly more developed and is not looking to recreate the past, but to truly democratize wealth. Kurland talks about creating capital accounts for all, while Alperovitz champions worker owned firms as seen in the Cleveland model and the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain. Alperovitz says much of the momentum for this change is happening at the local level and foresees a potential political movement in which communities use community-based credit unions to fund these firms--and work with local partnerships and sole proprietorships--who can then become a foundation for bottom up economic growth which is not solely dependent on multinational economic institutions to decide if you city lives or dies. People on the Left see it as a way to strengthen indigenous societies and liberate the poor from large dominating financial institutions, while the Right sees this as a chance to return to the decentralized values they believe makes America strong. Frankly, they all may be on to something which gets us out of the stalemate and possible decay we are in as we discover the old remedies of the 19th and 20th century, no longer work for most people.