Sunday, 12 December 2021

An Agricultural Act

In these troubled times we are called to examine our basic assumptions about food and the other necessities of life. A child can assume that food, clothing and accommodation will be provided by a parent figure. An adult cannot. All the necessities of life that we consume come to us at a price paid by others, in the form of soul-destroying work of many kinds. Meanwhile, the processes of packaging, transporting and disposing of the waste is causing untold damage to the natural world. Presently, the financial system allows us to live in childlike dependence upon a motherly market system that we do not understand, and that is rampaging across the corporate world, completely beyond our comprehension or control. It is time to recognise how the act of eating connects us with the land upon which it was grown.

Eating is an agricultural act. Food comes to us when the labour of others is skilfully combined with the produce of nature and the land. In the course of his teaching, Peter Maurin (of the Catholic Worker) drew attention to the work of Guild Socialist Arthur Penty. In Guilds, Trade and Agriculture, Penty argued that the international financial system, based as it is on competition, was the root cause of war, degradation of the land and poverty amidst plenty. The alternative is international cooperation based upon the revival of agriculture.

"The revival of agriculture implies a return to the idea of communities that are as self-contained as circumstances will allow; and such communities inevitably rest upon agriculture. In an earlier chapter I showed that the revival of agriculture was necessary alike to the solution of our unemployed problem and to provide us with food. .... But it is necessary also for another reason: to ensure a healthy population. It came as a surprise to most people in this country that recruiting statistics [for the First World War] revealed the fact- that we had a larger percentage of physical inefficients than any other country at war. But it is not surprising, remembering that no other country in the world has such a large proportion of her population living in crowded towns nor been industrialized for anything like the same length of time. These statistics prove that a town population gradually loses its vitality. In the past this vitality was every generation renewed by a stream of population from the country. In this light a peasantry on the soil is to be regarded as a reservoir from which the towns replenish their stock, and therefore agriculture stands on a different basis to that of any other industry, and its welfare should be protected at all costs.

"From a mercantile point of view it matters little whether the population be engaged in the production of food or motor-cars. But from a national point of view there is all the difference in the world, since the production of food guarantees a nation's future while the production of motor-cars does not. Yet when we remember how big business dominates national policy we cannot be surprised that, being, as we saw, heedless of its own future it should be equally heedless of that of the nation. If, therefore, one aspect of the return to fundamentals is a return to the principles of justice, honesty and fair dealing, the other aspect is a return to the land; to a life lived in closer contact with the elemental forces of nature."

Those words are even more relevant today than they were when first published in 1921, exactly a century ago. They lie behind the Catholic Worker movement's case for agricultural communes, also known as 'agronomic universities' (see previous blogs).

1 comment:

  1. What is astonishing is how prescient Penty was about the rise of manufacturing. Car manufacuring trebled from about 70,000 in 1920 (both private and commercial vehicles) to 239,000 in 1929, while the number of producers declined from 90 to 41, signalling the rise of mass production. 1929 was also the year of the Great Depression.
    My question is why, when this level of industry trebled, requiring capital investment etc, was there so much unemployment after the war. Was this the only industry that grew?