Creeping agrarianism

Prefatory note: We’ll have to wait a little while longer for my promised “Political Theater” piece–the election and some other stuff having taken away my research time for a little while. But here’s something else I’ve been thinking about of late.

Lately on the local community radio station, I heard a song by John McCutcheon called “It’s the Economy Stupid,” part of an album of polemical tunes he’s written about Clinton and Bush-era political and social issues. Other titles include “Hail to the Chief” which cleverly weaves together a bunch of Bush malapropisms and “I’m Packing,” which spoofs concealed weapons carriers.

All fairly typical of your folk lefty.

But “It’s the Economy Stupid” really struck a chord with me, and not a receptive one. This in spite of the fact that I’m generally in agreement with McCutcheon is his other left-of-center sentiments, from fear of yokels with concealed handguns to contempt for George Bush’s intellectual capacity.

But “Economy” resonates loudly with an agrarian populism I’d come to hope the left had left behind, or had left to the nutters on the right. But, surprisingly enough to me, a new sentimentalist, crypto-nativist, populist agrarianism has taken hold on the left, and McCutcheon’s lyrics are the most direct expression of it I’ve heard, so I will quote them here in their entirety:

It’s the Economy, Stupid (2001)

words and music by John McCutcheon

Written after reading Wendell Berry’s fabulous novel, Jayber Crow.

It’s the economy, stupid

A victory sign

A mantra

An explanation

A reminder

A warning

An omen

An onus

A threat

It’s the economy, stupid

Farmers’ wives bring eggs

Chickens

Whole milk

Fresh butter

To the local market

To the store

Come in with groceries

And leave with groceries and money

Small farmers raise crops

For local markets

Up at dawn

Home at dusk

More in fallow

Than under the plow

Dark loam

Rich with earthworms

Defying erosion

Anchoring forest borders

Home for

Game

Shelter

Shade

Now virginity is no longer fashionable

Even in our forests

We will harvest another crop

Of walnut

Cherry, oak

If we only live

Another hundred years.

Man was the last piece

Of creation

And has been playing catch up

Ever since.

Farming is a balance

Of muscle

Daylight

And conservation

Machinery

Becomes the muscle now

Allowing us to work

Into the night.

We plant our debts

Fencerow to fencerow

Swallowing

Every bitter dram

Of expert advice

Until

‘drunk with dreams

of fortune

equity

leverage

growth’

We grow

What we cannot use

Purchase

What we used to raise

Spend

What we used to save

Sell

What we used to treasure

Mock

What we used to revere

Hate

What we used to love

It’s the economy, stupid

Understand–

I am not a nostalgist

I am a most pragmatic man

I look at what naturally occurs

In the living world–

And see diversity

Not specialization.

I look at

Hometown banks

Restaurants

Hardware stores

Where your name

Is your credit

And decisions are rendered

By people who know you

Where you are more than

The five banks

And the four airlines

And the three newspaper chains

And the two big box stores

And the one-and-a-half political parties

And the one retort:

It’s the economy stupid

And the standards

That demand that

Every teacher teaches

Every student

Exactly the same thing

And, like these students

I have to ask ‘why?’

Why?

It’s the economy, stupid

Now those educated

Appraised students

Ride their buses

From their consolidated schools

Back to their small towns and farms

And cannot wait

To drive their cars away

On that highway of diamonds

Into the consolidated cities

Where they look back

In shame

And wonder

Stranded

Between what they know

And what they’ve been sold

It’s the economy, stupid

The economy that looks

For the maximum return

For the quick turnaround

For the short term gain

For the unearned income

For the Big Lotto

It’s the economy, stupid

And the economy

Is impatient

It has a short attention span

It is easily bored

It is hungry

It is late for its next appointment

It puts you on hold

It does not return your call

It’s the economy, stupid

The economy

Has you working two jobs

It is mandatory overtime

It is expensive sneakers

Made by sweating children

It is cheap food

Picked by landless hands

It is good paying jobs

Disappearing from American towns

And reappearing

Nowhere

It is your closed up main street

And it is your boarded up mill

And it is your condo-minimized factory

And it is your cookie cutter mall

And it is not accountable

It is not America

It’s the economy, stupid

The economy now has no borders

Or horizons

Or faces

Or hands

The economy has only one rule:

More.

And the economy lies.

The economy tells us it is about Freedom.

The economy is about Dependence.

Not on land

Or animals

Or weather

Or neighbors

But

On machinery

And fuel

And credit.

Most farmers

Have borrowed their way

Right out of farming.

And

No government loan

No government program

Will change

That cycle.

Because the government

Is powerless now, see:

It’s the economy, stupid

And the government is the economy’s

Biggest cheerleader.

It plays by the same rules:

The quick fix

The stronger army

The bigger bomb

The dependence on machinery

To do work

That can only effectively be done

By humans.

It consolidates

When diversity is required.

It’s about economy

It’s about small towns with

Banks

And baseball teams

A general store

Churches

Family cemeteries

A schoolhouse

A lumberyard

A radio station

A newspaper

A roadhouse

A funeral home

A filling station

Open space

Open opportunity

Open eyes

Open hearts

Choice

Recourse

Response

Responsibility

It’s about economy

Craigston, Carriacou, Grenada February 2001

©2001 John McCutcheon/Appalsongs (ASCAP)

Keep in mind, I live in Northern Michigan, and though the town where I live is fairly moderate, much of surrounding area is rural. There are few minorities or foreigners here. To me, a lot of this sort of song really seems to me to appeal directly to the racism and xenophobia which are very strong ideological undercurrents in this area, even on the left.

And I am not doing the white guilt thing here–finding reason for the whites to castigate themselves everywhere–I am merely observing that popular movements here like the effort to shut down the Perrier water plant in Macosta, Michigan make pretty freely appeal to nativism and xenophobia to get people excited–the company is FRENCH! (or, somewhat less dramatically, Swiss) or its a MULTINATIONAL! (code word for “foreign”) and the scandal is that “our” water might be taken so that foreigner can profit by it and some brown-skinned people somewhere may get to drink it.

Keep our water here!

If this sounds a lot like the sort of agrarian nativism Richard Hofstadter wrote about in his works on American populism and nativist paranoia, well it should.

The American left is slowly but surely leaving behind its commitment to things like science, social progress and urbanity and embracing irrationalism, nostalgia and, rather more surreptitiously, the sort of “blood and soil” ideology that gave a bad name to this line of thinking in the first place.

The time to head this off is now. The way to do it is by facing up to some hard truths: we are stuck with modernity; We are stuck with the rest of the world; We are stuck with negotiation, compromise and politics no matter how righteous we think we are; We are stuck with uncertainty, complexity and complication.

More on this topic later.

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