I have an essay coming out in a collection devoted to exploring the thought of Wendell Berry. One description reads: Wendell Berry: Life and Work should be available in bookstores in March, a publication date that will roughly coincide with Wendell’s and Tanya’s fiftieth wedding anniversary (May 29). The book will feature a chronology, a selected bibliography, an index, five photographs of Wendell (each adorned with a short quotation about him by a writer not included in the table of contents, including Robert Hass, Barry Lopez, Ken Kesey, Gary Snyder, and Wallace Stegner), and of course thirty superb essays.
I post here an earlier version of the chapter that will appear in the book. There are enough changes in the chapter to officially qualify it as a new essay - so, buy the book!
Against the Grain:
The Alternative Tradition of Wendell Berry
Patrick J. Deneen
In his early book, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry described America as a nation with two fundamental “tendencies.” These two tendencies were set in motion by the earliest European settlers in America, and continue to define the fundamental worldviews of most contemporary Americans – and increasingly, the modern world. The “dominant tendency” was manifested as a proclivity toward mobility and restlessness that aimed at maximum extraction of resources and accumulation of profits from the bounty of the new continent. Berry acknowledges that this worldview was dominant because it was “organized” at the very inception of the settlement of the new continent. However, Berry also recognizes “another tendency” that characterized a great many other settlers: this “weaker” tradition was marked by “the tendency to stay put, to say ‘No farther. This is the place.’” The first tendency took the form of liberalism, both philosophically, politically and economically. The “weaker” tendency lacks a philosophical label, but has found varying expressions within America as traditionalism, agrarianism, and populism. Over time, this weaker tendency has only lost ground to the dominant tendency, to the point that many have come to conclude that there is really only one tradition in America - liberalism.
America’s “dominant tendency” was drawn philosophically from older sources, such as Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes; derived from early modern sources ranging from John Locke and Adam Smith; was articulated domestically by figures like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson (sometimes), James Madison, Alexander Hamilton; and was officially instantiated in America’s founding documents. At the heart of this tradition is a belief in natural scarcity, of a recalcitrant nature which only grudgingly provides the basic necessities of human existence. The modern age was conceived as the effort to increase the offerings of nature by means of the increase of human power and dominion. According to Francis Bacon, science was aimed above all for the “relief of man’s estate.” Francis Bacon initiated the modern scientific project of conquering nature with the aphorism “knowledge is power.” According to Bacon, nature was comparable to a prisoner who withheld its secrets from his inquisitor. The modern scientific project sought to increase our knowledge about those secrets by any means, including, Bacon suggested, torture.
Building on this foundation, liberalism was conceived by assuming that humans are, by nature, self-interested and self-maximizing individuals. Bacon’s one time secretary, Thomas Hobbes, declared that the inescapable motivation of human being was their endless and restless pursuit of “power after power that ceaseth only in death.” Human existence was, by nature, one of conflict and warfare. In this natural condition – one in which human life is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short” – there is no culture or industry, no productive economy of any kind. By means of a “social contract,” or an agreement of convention, humans are enabled not only to ensure peace and security, but to achieve “commodious living.” Comfort, plenty, and culture can only be achieved in a condition that is unnatural; “nature,” including human nature, is hostile to the goods of human life. As such, it must be harnessed, controlled, and subverted.
John Locke – America’s philosopher, according to some – expanded this commendation of “commodious living,” arguing in The Second Treatise on Government that the fundamental aim of human society was the increase of economic growth. According to Locke, early human societies permitted the accumulation of only an amount of property that was sufficient for the continuity of human life. However, with the invention of money – a contrivance that allowed humans to circumvent the one-time limitation on accumulation, namely, only so much material that would not spoil – unlimited acquisition became both possible and desirable. This unlimited acquisition did not prejudice or fundamentally disadvantage even those who were ill-equipped or even unwilling to increase their holdings, since, according to Locke, the increase of prosperity of some individuals led to the increase of wealth of the society at large. Thus, Locke argued – anticipating Ronald Reagan’s adage that “a rising tide raises all boats” – that the poorest day laborer in England (i.e., a growth economy) was wealthier and thereby a more desirable estate than the greatest Indian chief in America (who presided over a non-growth economy). Society was devised in order to secure not only peace, but the perpetual and unlimited increase of human wealth based upon the extraction, accumulation and manipulation of natural resources.
America was conceived in light of the aims of this modern project, and arguably is the nation par excellence in embodying its belief in the preeminence of individuals who aim above all to harness nature toward the end of increasing material wealth. Its founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, attest to the liberal presuppositions and framework that have guided the nation and formed the citizenry since its inception. The Declaration of Independence enshrines the centrality of natural rights – “endowed by their Creator” – in America’s self-understanding. Rights both precede and are retained within political society: they are “inalienable” and inherent possessions of each individual, thus establishing a central presupposition among Americans that the individual precedes and in theory and practice is prior to government and commonweal. In political terms, the theory of liberal rights leads to a stress upon individual liberty and suspicion if not outright hostility toward government (cf. Thoreau’s claim, attributed to Jefferson and similar to statements of Thomas Paine, that “that government which governs best, governs least”). In economic terms, the theory of liberal rights lends itself to a thoroughgoing belief in individual agency in the use and disposal of one’s property. Liberalism’s base assumption that all human motivation arises from self-interest further undermines the claims for a common good, and rather privileges the priority of individual choice and economic growth, regardless of the consequences to both moral and economic ecology. While the American Left and Right have tended to highlight one side of liberalism – with the current Democratic Party most protective of political liberalism particularly in the realm of “lifestyle choice,” and the Republican Party a vociferous defender of free market libertarianism – as a whole, the American polity and its major political actors predominantly share a common embrace of the major tenets of liberalism. It is almost inconceivable to imagine a political leader raising doubts about the priority of liberty as a national ideal, or questioning the continued wisdom of growth as the major ambition of our economic system. It would seem that there is simply no alternative tradition to this dominant liberal tradition.
Wendell Berry contests this supposition, both in practice and theory. He points to an alternative tradition in America, initially composed of settlers who sought to put down roots, to foster community, and create colonies in the original sense of that term. This early American worldview, according to Berry, has been subsequently and variously defended in the written work of such figures as the Founders, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and members of the American “Southern Agrarian” movement, especially Allen Tate. It has been instantiated in the practices and the worldview of American agrarians and populists. Yet, while it has been a distinctive American tradition, Berry acknowledges that over time this “tendency” was rendered almost invisible, not only because it was not “organized,” but because the dominant tendency was actively hostile toward the “weaker” tendency. “Generation after generation, those who intended to remain and prosper where they were have been dispossessed and driven out, or subverted and exploited where they were, by those who were carrying out some version of the search for El Dorado. Time after time, in place after place, these conquerors have fragmented and demolished traditional communities…. They have always said that what they destroyed was outdated, provincial, and contemptible.” A more aggressive and hostile form of colonization has displaced its more modest counterpart over time.
THE ALTERNATIVE TRADITION
Berry’s anti-liberalism is not articulated in strictly philosophic terms, but nevertheless has a remarkable philosophic pedigree, at least in terms of family resemblance. Perhaps the most intriguing philosophic source of Berry’s thought is only implicit at best, and is most probably a resemblance not deriving from strong first-hand knowledge but simply philosophic sympathy. Remarkably, at various instances throughout his corpus, Berry sounds uncanny echoes to the thought of Aristotle. His standard, like Aristotle, is nature. Nature sets the terms and establishes limits to human undertakings. Humanity is best positioned to thrive not through the successful conquest or exploitation of nature, but rather through a respectful heeding of nature’s laws and limits. Nature – of which humanity is a part, in both Berry’s and Aristotle’s reckoning – is the whole that governs all of its constitutive parts. While liberalism tends to focus upon and give priority to the various “parts” of nature, including and above all the individual – and hence leads to the foolish belief that those parts can escape the implications of their connection to, and reliance upon, nature – Berry’s alternative understanding gives priority to “the whole” and understands all parts within that context. Berry writes:
We seem to have been living for a long time on the assumption that we can safely deal with parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself. But now the news from everywhere is that we have to begin gathering up the scattered pieces, figuring out where they belong, and putting them back together. For the parts can be reconciled to each other only within the pattern of the whole to which they belong. Like Aristotle, Berry argues that the whole precede the parts in priority, that is, that the parts can only thrive when the whole is considered, comprehended, heeded and cultivated.
Further, like Aristotle, the seemingly simple standard of “nature” turns out to be a challenging and imprecise guide, one that requires judgment and prudence more than science and logic. Berry rejects the typically “polarized” contemporary views of the relationship of humankind to nature, one comprised of “nature conquerors” and the other, purported lovers of nature. The former claim that there is a thoroughgoing adversarial relationship between humans and nature; the latter claim that there is no fundamental disjuncture or tension between the two. The former reject that humans are part of nature altogether while the latter tend toward pantheism. Berry finds both positions to be facile. Instead, in strikingly Aristotelian terms, he advances instead the “roomy and bewildering” alternative of “the middle.” Humanity is at once a part of, and separate from, nature, which is at once “hospitable to us, but also absolutely dangerous to us (it is going to kill us sooner or later), and we are absolutely dependent upon it.” The two “polarized” positions represent fundamentally false choices: humankind cannot live wholly as parts of nature, inasmuch as they must consciously decide how to use it. There is no escape from the necessity of using nature; there is only the choice of how best to establish that relationship, whether as exploiters or stewards. On the other hand, while humans can live for a time in an exploitative relationship with nature, in the long term nature will exact a cost for this alternative extreme and make continued human life increasingly difficult if not impossible.
Thus, much like Aristotle’s recognition that humans are “by nature political animals” – that is, that it is in their nature to be conventional creatures, albeit ones governed by certain laws, above all by the law of being a human and not a “god or beast” – Berry recognizes that humans occupy a vast middle ground in which the human relationship to nature must be guided by conscious decision, cultivation, and judgment. Humans cannot be the unconscious “animals” of the pantheists any more than they can be the self-sufficient “gods” suggested by those who would establish human dominion over nature.
Humans uniquely possess the conscious capacity to determine their relationship to nature, but can do so only reasonably within the bounds established by nature – both “wildness” and human nature. Culture is the inescapable medium of human life and the conduit of the human relation to the natural sphere, as is the case as well for Aristotle: “To take a creature who is biologically a human and to make him or her fully human is a task that requires many years….” It is culture, including the acculturation within polities, above all, that makes us “into humans – creatures capable of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, and the other virtues.” Like Aristotle, Berry observes that, absent this cultivation of the human animal into the human being, humanity has an opposite tendency to become worse than beasts: “for our history reveals that, stripped of the restraints, disciplines, and ameliorations of culture, humans are not ‘natural,’ not ‘thinking animals’ or ‘naked apes,’ but monsters – indiscriminate and insatiable killers and destroyers. We differ from other creatures, partly, in our susceptibility to monstrosity.”
Above all, humans must exercise prudence, or the Aristotelian intellectual virtue of phronesis. Humans must integrate culture and nature, neither assuming their actions to be wholly in accord with, or derived from nature simpliciter, nor that they can flourish apart from, or in hostility to, nature. Akin to Arisotelian phronesis, judgment must be formed not based on abstraction or “theory,” but upon particular circumstance and local knowledge (albeit, particularity that is always guided by the demands and limits set by nature). Humans must “consciously and conscientiously ask of their work: Is this good for us? Is this good for our place? And the questioning and answering of this phase is minutely particular: It can occur only with reference to particular artifacts, events, places, ecosystems, and neighborhoods.”
COMMUNITY, EDUCATION, TRADITION
Because of the importance of particular knowledge and experience, Berry, like Aristotle, stresses the central importance of locality, that is, an embodied and real set of relationships of particular people in particular and relatively delineated and exclusive places. Berry is an unapologetic defender of community, albeit not the contemporary liberal version of communitarianism that seeks simply to add a dollop of “responsibility” to the continued dominant discourse of “rights,” such as one finds in the thought of Amitai Etzioni. For Berry, rather, community is a rich and varied set of personal relationships, a complex of practices and traditions drawn from a store of common memory and tradition, and a set of bonds forged between a people and a place that – because of this situatedness – is not portable, mobile, fungible, or transferable. Community is more than a mere collection of self-interested individuals brought together to seek personal advancement together. Rather, community “lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness.”
Berry does not shy away from the conclusion, nor is embarrassed to acknowledge, that community is a place of constraint and limits. Indeed, in this simple fact lies its great attraction. Community, properly conceived, is the appropriate setting for flourishing human life – flourishing that requires culture, discipline, constraint and forms. At the most elemental level (again, echoing Aristotle, if unconsciously), community is both derived from, and in turn makes possible, healthful family life. Absent the supports of communal life, family life is hard pressed to flourish. This is because family life is premised, in Berry’s view, in the first instance upon certain suppression of otherwise individualistic tendencies toward narrow self-fulfillment, particularly ones erotic in nature. Berry commends
arrangements [that] include marriage, family structure, divisions of work and authority, and responsibility for the instruction of children and young people. These arrangements exist, in part, to reduce the volatility and dangers of sex – to preserve its energy, its beauty, and its pleasure; to preserve and clarify its power to join not just husband and wife to one another but parents to children, families to the community, the community to nature; to ensure, so far as possible, that the inheritors of sexuality, as they come of age, will be worthy of it.
Communities maintain standards and patterns of life that encourage responsible and productive forms of erotic bonds, particularly with an aim toward fostering strong family ties and commitments that are the backbone of communal health and the conduit for the transmission of culture and tradition. Communities thus supercede the absolutist claims of “rights bearers”: for instance, Berry insists that communities are justified in maintaining internally-derived standards of decency in order to foster and maintain a certain desired moral ecology. He explicitly defends the communal prerogative in the field of education to demand certain books be removed from the curriculum; to insist upon the introduction of the Bible into the classroom as “the word of God”; and even reflects that “the future of community life in this country may depend on private schools and home schooling.” Family is the wellspring of the cultural habits and practices that foster practical wisdom, judgment and local forms of knowledge by which humans can flourish and thrive in common and rightly claim the primary role in the education and upbringing of a given community’s children.
The priority of community begins with the family, but extends outward to incorporate an appropriate locus of the common good. For Berry, the common good can only be achieved in small, local settings. These dimensions cannot be precisely drawn, but Berry seems to endorse, at a minimum, the town as the most basic locus of commonweal, and at the utmost, and mainly in the economic and not interpersonal realm, the region. Berry is not hostile toward a conception of national, or even international common good, but recognizes that the greater scope of these latter large units tends toward abstraction and hence come always at the expense of the former, namely, at the expense of the flourishing of real human lives. Larger units than the locality or the region can only flourish in the proper sense when the constitutive parts flourish. Modern liberalism, by contrast, insists upon the priority of the largest unit over the smallest, and seeks everywhere to create a homogenous standard to be imposed upon a world of particularity and diversity. One sees this tendency across the board in modern liberal society, from education to court decisions that effectively “nationalize” sexual morality, from economic standardization to minute and exacting regulatory regimes. The tendency of modern politics – born of a philosophy that endorses above all the expansion of human power and control – is toward massification, the subjection of all particularities to the logic of market dynamics, the resulting exploitation of local resources, and an active hostility toward the diversity of local customs and traditions in the name of progress and rationalism.
Modern politics, as Berry has pointed out, is impatient with local variety, particularly forms of life that do not accept the modern embrace of progress, and most especially material progress in the form of economic growth and personal liberation from all forms of work that are elemental or forestall mobility and efficiency. Berry is a strong critic of the homogenization that modern states and modern economic assumptions enforce upon the variety of local forms. He is a defender of “common” or “traditional” sense, that sense of the commons that in many respects can prove to be resistant to the logic of economic and liberal development and progress. Much like Giambattista Vico’s earlier critique of Hobbesian instrumental rationality, Berry is a defender of the “sensus communis.” Such “common knowledge” is the result of the practice and experience, the accumulated common store of wisdom born of trials and corrections of people who have lived, suffered, and flourished in local settings. Rules and practices cannot be imposed based upon a pre-conceived notion of right, absent the prudential consideration and respect toward common sense. This is not to suggest that traditions cannot be changed or altered, but, much as in Burke’s understanding, traditions must be allowed to change internally and thus with the understanding and assent of people who have developed lives and communities based upon those practices.
Berry excoriates the exploitative sensibility of economic agents who most often have no connection to a locality, and see it only in terms of what use any particular place can have for economic growth overall. Calling this the “absentee economy,” he notes the way in which local particularities are largely reduced to their usefulness for other parts of the country or the world.
The global economy (like the national economy before it) operates on the superstition that the deficiencies or needs or wishes of one place may safely be met by the ruination of another place. "To build houses here, we clear-cut forests there. To have air-conditioning here, we strip-mine forests there. To drive our cars here, we sink our oil wells there. It is an absentee economy. Most people aren’t destroying what they can see…." All the critical questions affecting our use of the earth are left to be answered by “the market” or the law of supply and demand. An economy without limits is an economy without discipline.
According to the assessment of the “market” – a seeming impersonal force, the collection of individual decisions that transpires without planning or collective intention – there can be no calculable “valuation” of what is disrupted or destroyed by the extraction of resources, or the exploitation of labor, from various localities. The objections by any such localities that economic logic may prove destructive of longstanding communal forms can have no effect, inasmuch as such forms of life almost never contribute to an increase or improvement in the bottom line. All evaluations are made in terms of whether there is a short-term increase in wealth, prosperity, and efficiency.
Berry’s refuses to depersonalize the destruction wrought by modern economic forces upon local communities by rejecting the dogma that the “market” or “globalization” or progress itself is an impersonal and thus uncontrollable force. He articulates not only the particular set of assumptions and preferences built into those seemingly impersonal “forces,” but points to the particular agents who carry out those assumptions. In particular, he gives a face and personality to the humans whose economic assumptions have the effect of eviscerating local traditions and mores. He lambasts the condescension of “experts” and “progressives” who presume to know what is better for a community than the people who live in that community, ones who otherwise view such places as “fly-over” country and practice a form of “absentee” exploitation. He notes that this “powerful class of itinerant professional vandals” brings no capacity to assess the value of locality in terms other than profit and growth. Such people, above all, lack the capacity to assess the non-monetary value of localities because they have been raised and educated both to avoid any such local commitments, and even to disdain them as untoward forms of limitation. They are formed to be “the purest sort of careerists – ‘upwardly mobile’ transients who will permit no stay or place to interrupt their personal advance. They must have no local allegiances; they must not have a local point of view. In order to be able to desecrate, endanger, or destroy a place, after all, one must be able to leave it and forget it…. Unlike a life at home, which makes ever more particular and precious the places and creatures of this world, the careerist’s life generalizes the world, reducing its abundant and comely diversity to ‘raw material.’”
These modern elites – mobile, homeless cosmopolitans – are the product of a particular system of education that induces particular preferences and produces particular outcomes. Not simply or reductively the product of a neutral “market,” the “market” is itself the product of a certain culture – in this case, a culture against culture. Berry is particularly critical of modern universities for their betrayal of an earlier mandate to educate young men and women of particular localities (particularly at land-grant institutions) in order that they might gratefully contribute to the very communities that sponsored their course of study. Classically understood, “education is, literally, ‘to bring up,’ to bring young people to a responsible maturity, to help them be good caretakers of what they have been given, to help them to be charitable toward fellow creatures.” By contrast, according the practices of modern universities, education that orients people to leave home becomes a “commodity” – “something to be bought in order to make money…. To make a commodity of education, then, is inevitably to make a kind of weapon of it because, when it its dissociated from the sense of obligation, it can be put directly in the service of greed.” A university education becomes yet one more portable commodity, a ticket into the exploiting class.
For Berry, there are two economies, and correspondingly, two kinds of education. The first kind of economy is that which we currently have: oriented toward the short term in pursuit of quickly-won wealth, it is an exploitative economy that hollows out traditional and communal forms of life and thereby induces amnesia about how to sustain and work in concert with nature’s limited bounty. One is less “educated” than “trained” in this first economic context. The second kind of economy, and the values correspondingly inculcated through such an education, takes into account the economic whole – not only the “bottom line” with the presumption that growth and increase of human power and comfort are the aim, but an economy that accounts for both moral and physical ecology, that considers its effects upon future generations, that hews more closely to the wisdom of past tradition and eschews the easy assumption that new always implies progress and “better.” The first economy is based upon the control of nature that permits unrestrained human greed; the second economy is based upon the self-control of properly educated human beings.
THE CASE FOR REALITY
Bertrand de Jouvenel has written that the core assumption underlying liberalism’s constitutive State of Nature theory – that human beings can be conceived as naturally autonomous, rights-bearing and rationally calculating individuals – is proof that liberalism was conceived by “childless men who have forgotten their childhood.” Classical liberalism, Jouvenel points out, is based upon an abstraction of human beings from human life in all of its particularity, materiality, and rich diversity. It reduces humans to abstract, calculating individuals, stripping them of their past, their relations, their culture and their traditions. Built upon this foundation, liberalism contributes to an abstract way of thinking and acting in such a way that pervades modern society, depriving most people of the once easy and obvious forms of reality that are necessarily imposed upon our vision in the context of a more traditional setting. Modern life divorces us from the sources of that life; by contrast, life within cultures and traditions cultivates not only our understanding of those sources, but a sense of gratitude, wonder, and honor. In such an alternative setting, we are enabled to see more readily our past, in the structures erected with care and thought of permanence by our forbears and the honor we pay them; in the customs and practices that we learn from our parents and from the elders of our community; in the more elementary forms of economy that permits us more closely to perceive the ways that our food and goods of human life are cultivated, produced, distributed, and replenished; and the fact of our limits, including that ultimate limit of our mortality, evinced at every turn by the constraints imposed by community, lessons of self-control gained through our education, and a variety of traditional “forms,” perhaps above all the inescapable presence of memorials to the dead.
Modern society obscures our acts from their sources and their consequences. Modern life puts temporal blinders around our eyes, forcing to see only the present and inducing a blindness toward the past and permitting an exceedingly narrow view of the future. Short term thinking – the use and destruction of nature for our satisfaction today – is undertaken and justified in light of a blinkered and unjustified belief that any shortages or adverse consequences resulting from our current activities will be solved by technological progress in the future. This restricted temporal horizon severs us from the past. Technological optimism and blind faith in progress can only be embraced if one simultaneously harbors a “hatred for the past.” What appears to be our belief in the future – our technological optimism – in fact manifests itself as a free pass to live irresponsibly in the present. It serves as an easy excuse to avoid confronting the consequences of one’s current actions. Our seeming future-orientation is nothing more than a deeply constricted form of presentism. Our disinclination to recall the past induces an unrealism about the future, and thereby leads us to a drastically constrained short-term time horizon. Berry’s work – bound up in the inescapable rhythm of time in which past is present and future is, like agriculture, a seed that will take a certain form under certain conditions of cultivation (or, will fail to flourish with in the absence of cultivation) – seeks to restore the entirety of the human temporal horizon and thereby restore the possibility of realism.
Perhaps above all, Berry calls for thoughtfulness in all of its forms. The abstraction induced by the modern economic order leads to pervasive forms of thoughtlessness. The mainstream of modern humanity, operating under the assumptions governing free market ideology, has a tendency to reduce all value to monetary terms. Herein lies the origins of modern relativism: in this view, nothing contains an inherent worth. This assumption was already carried to its natural conclusion by Hobbes in the Leviathan, when he wrote that “the ‘value,’ or ‘worth,’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power; and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgment of another.” Human life itself, beginning but not limited to our labor, is but one more commodity to be accorded a price on the open market. Money is the everyday practical symbol of the abstraction of our economy, and is one of the features of that economy that blinds us to the reality of work and its intrinsic value. Because of the abstraction of our lives, it is likely that there has never been a populace more ignorant about how to evaluate truly the reality of our world. “Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink or clothing and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind reveals itself to be as superstitious a mind as ever existed in the world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?”
Indeed, this “ignorance” of the true sources of human sustenance is undergirded and aggravated by an active hostility toward manual forms of labor, that is, toward what is otherwise considered to be “drudgery.” Berry describes this modern aversion as arising from a belief in the possibility of “economic redemption” from the divine injunction that humans must earn bread by the sweat of their own brow. According to modern valuations, physical labor, or drudgery, has been degraded as have all ways of living that implicitly acknowledge our lack of thoroughgoing power. Because such labor is and remains a necessity, it is an affront to our belief that modernity entails our increasing escape from necessity. Thus, Berry observes, “to speak of such work as good and ennobling, a source of pleasure and joy, is almost to declare oneself a pervert. Such work, and any aptitude or taste for it, are supposedly mere relics of our rural and primitive past – a past from which it is the business of modern science and technology to save us.”
Our pervasive ignorance of the sources of the most basic necessities of human life – an ignorance abetted and aggravated by this modern hostility to “drudgery,” and hence our widespread ignorance of the intrinsic merit of such work – leads to the inability to thoughtfully understand the sources and consequences of our economy, especially in the forms of our consumption and the production of waste. “Money does not bring forth food,” Berry writes. “Neither does the technology of the food system. Food comes from nature and from the work of people. If the supply of food is to be continuous for a long time, people must work in harmony with nature.” Because of the disconnection, in this instance, between our consumption of processed and packaged food and the origin of that sustenance, we consume thoughtlessly and wastefully. By valuing food because of its low price, we thoughtlessly support destructive forms of industrial agriculture, ones that reap enormous crops – and profits – in the present, at the cost of future productivity due to the loss of topsoil, the destruction of ecologies due to the pervasive introduction of agricultural monocultures (the agricultural version of our human monoculture, such as most forms of popular “culture”), and the depletion of resources such as water and fossil fuels. Only by full valuation of labor and the fruits of that work can we begin properly to evaluate – to accord proper value upon – our patterns of consumption and waste. Only by accounting for what is lost or destroyed by present practices and the burdens those actions will impose upon our children and future generations can we begin to calculate the true cost of our actions.
At the heart of Berry’s critique of this thoughtlessness lies a rejection of Adam Smith’s assumptions that an economy could work best based upon ever-greater forms of specialization. Berry does not reject the necessity of the division of labor as such; however, extensive specialization takes place in a philosophic context that actively discourages thoughtfulness about the connections of all the various forms of work in a complex industrial economy. The “whole” is understood to be an aggregate of individual choices, an “invisible hand” that spontaneously orients society in the direction it “chooses.” We are relieved of the duty or obligation to reflect upon the implications of our work: such reflection forms no part of our actual work. For Berry, this represents not the proper form of work; it is, in fact, bad work.
Most of us get almost all the things we need by buying them; most of us know only vaguely, if at all, where these things come from; and most of us know not at all what damage is involved in their production. "We are almost entirely dependent on an economy of which we are almost entirely ignorant. The provenance, for example, not only of the food we buy at the store, but of the chemicals, fuels, metals, and other materials necessary to grow, harvest, transport, process, and package that food is almost necessarily a mystery to us. To know the full economic history of a head of supermarket cauliflower would require an immense job of research."
Not only does the complexity of the modern economy make the likelihood of perceiving the various connections between different kinds of worth exceedingly difficult; before even arriving at that recognition, modern economic theory in fact discourages such thoughtfulness by its tendency instead to encourage short-term, individualistic, value-based (i.e., relativistic), and resource exploitative ways of thinking. Thoughtlessness is our default tendency, a tendency that is only exacerbated by the resulting complexity of the extreme specialization resulting from the available kinds of work.
Good work, by contrast, involves our thoughtful reflection on these sources and connections. Such work does not entail our full comprehension of all the constitutive efforts that go into the creation of a head of supermarket cauliflower, or any product of a complex economic system. Good work, rather, entails the effort to see through a glass darkly toward the whole of which we are all constitutive members. Such an effort, in the first instance, acknowledges the existence of a whole: it forces upon our consciousness a recognition that we act not merely as partialities nor as autonomous or monadic individuals, but as members of a large, living organism of civilization. It forces to our consciousness recognition that, by acting in certain ways, we assent – or potentially withhold our assent – to the destruction of that whole. We move beyond thinking that there is an “environmental crisis” – since, the “environment,” recall, is something “out there” and separate from us – but rather, that we are experiencing “a crisis of our lives as individuals, as family members, as community members, and as citizens.” We begin to understand how our actions implicate us in the whole, how we are inextricably linked in the creation of a common culture – or the undermining of that culture – and in the forging of a common good – or, more likely, the neglect of that good in the absence of commonality.
Thoughtfulness, from the perspective of liberalism, potentially deprives us of our full-blown liberty. Its consequence is to explode the assumption that we can act solely based upon our individual rights and the resulting freedom of choice. It dissolves the supposition that we can and ought to dispose of our property – what we have paid for, using our money – in whatever manner we see fit. Such thoughtfulness does not give a priority of the “right” over the “good” – indeed, it recognizes that only the good can be right. Such thoughtfulness becomes a source of support for robust political action – actions that potentially, and likely, will restrict the liberty of individual actors, whether in the “economic” or “personal” spheres. As such, Berry contends that liberalism finally falsely understands liberty.
Thoughtfulness, and the resulting understanding, enables a true form of liberty – the liberty that results from proper choices within properly understood limits.
Ironically, the accumulation of our individual decisions leaves modern liberals profoundly unfree. They are, first and most basically, in the thrall of their appetites. They lack self-control, and hence are incapable of the freedom of self-rule. But, further, in ways that become daily more evident to us, because of our dependence on globalized sources of labor and essential resources, we are subject to forces far beyond our capacity to exert influence or control. America has abandoned the Jeffersonian ideal of economic self-sufficiency as a core basis for political liberty. In developing dependencies upon foreign powers, we are inevitably and inescapably drawn into the vagaries of foreign politics, into concern over the future of oft despicable regimes, and into “foreign entanglements” that have historically led to the transformation of republics into empires. For the sake of cheaply produced goods and the avoidance of “drudgery,” the republic increasingly loses its actual freedom – ironically enough, in the name of freedom (now, freedom from any form of physical labor and the freedom to buy the cheapest goods): “The United States has chosen (if that is the right word) to become an import-dependent society rather than to live principally from its own land and the work of its own people, as if dependence on imported goods and labor can be consistent with political independence and self-determination…. The economic independence of families, communities, and even regions has now been almost completely destroyed.”
In this sense, Berry seeks to return us to reality – not the fantasy of imagined freedom, but the actual liberty that can be achieved by individuals, families, communities, and polities with an appropriate understanding of limits and the choices possible within those bounds. We will return to reality, either by choice or by the force of natural limits imposed upon us. Berry urges us to take the path of freedom.