Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Tolkein, Kirk, and the Forgotten Conservatism

A few weeks ago I began posting reflections on the nature of conservativism, drawing heavily from Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. Kirk was the intellectual godfather of modern American conservativism, though sadly, far more Americans know of Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh than Kirk. Hannity, Limbaugh, and others who are part of the media-entertainment complex that poses as conservatism are in reality ideologues (perhaps even demagogues), and thus are the antithesis of the conservativism defined by Kirk as "the negation of ideology."

In today's post I'd like to draw attention to a strain of conservative thinking that Kirk wrote about in The Conservative Mind that also happens to be reflected in The Hobbitt and The Lord of the Rings trilogy penned by J.R.R. Tolkein. That line of thinking is usually called agrarianism.

Think about the way of life enjoyed by the hobbits living in the Shire. The Shire represents a society that is rural rather than urban, agricultural rather than industrialized, small and provincial rather than massive and cosmopolitan. That is the essence of the agrarian philosophy, and for Tolkein, it was the ideal. Who wouldn't want to live as a hobbit - if nothing else than to enjoy "second breakfast"!

Tolkein's literary preference for agrarianism was hardly subtle. Consider the evil Saruman's overdevelopment of his stronghold in Isengard, razing the forests to build the mechanized war machine put into the service of Sauron. Saruman's way is the way of machinery, mass production, and manufacturing, all at the expense of the forest and for the destruction of the agrarian worlds of human, elves, and hobbits. When the Ents awake from their slumber to march on Isengard and destroy Saruman's stronghold by releasing the forces of nature, it is the ultimate triumph of agrarianism. 

In The Conservative Mind, Kirk touches on this same agrarian impulse in his chapter on Southern conservativism: 

Southerners were convinced that consolidation, political or economic, would breach the wall of tradition and establish in America a unitary state, arbitrary, omnicompetent, manipulated for the benefit of a dominant majority, told by the head-and within that popular majority, for the benefit of the masters of the new industry...

[Southern conservativism possesses] a deep affection for agricultural life and a contempt for trade and manufactures. This view, of orgins interesting and complex, combined with a lack of mineral resources in the Old South to produce general Southern determination neither to be industrialized by Northern enthusiasts nor to submit to taxation, through the tariffs that would subsidize Northern industry.
There really is no modern political party that retains the agrarian outlook. The Republican Party has always been the party of big business, and while the Democratic Party of the 19th and early 20th centuries was firmly agrarian in its orientation, that is no longer the case. Both major parties now are dominated by corporate interests, exemplified by the subsidies paid to huge industrialized farms and the collapse of the small family farm.

There are a few agrarian voices in the public arena. Wendell Berry's essays, novels and poems are the epitome of the agrarian outlook. Rod Dreher's "crunchy conservativism" has a similar vision to Berry. But I suppose it is the very nature of agrarianism, with its preference for the local and decentralized, not to enjoy much support or influence in the highly centralized corridors of political and financial power.

However, I do think that lots of people share the values and outlook of agrarianism but are just not familiar with the term. Do these beliefs describe what you think?

  • A preference for local control and solutions over federal solutions?
  • A preference for the businesses and products of the local community and a distrust of globalization and industrialization?
  • A preference for that which is older and traditional rather than the cult of the colossal and the march of progress?
Then though you may have never heard the term, you are an agrarian at heart! The rural lifestyle, the life on the farm, requires such an outlook, which is why it is called agrarian. And even though you may be a "city-slicker" as I am, the values rooted in such a lifestyle can still remain central to your own outlook. 

Agrarians understand that a healthy economy requires and produces things like industrialization, technology, and international trade. But agrarians also believe in principles such as appropriate scale and the priority of the community. When industrialization occurs to a scale that far exceeds what is healthy for the local economy and ecology, or when unfettered trade and globalization occurs at the expense of the values and well-being of the local community, that is excess.

And excess is the antithesis of conservativism.

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