Wendell Berry and the Great Economy

I confess that until now I have never read anything by Wendell Berry. In fact, I deliberately avoided reading anything by him, or indeed by any agrarian writer. There was a strategic reason for avoiding these writers. The bulk of my work is devoted to explicating Distributism in purely economic terms, and Distributism is often accused of being “merely” an agrarian system and therefore an exercise in nostalgia and romanticism. Hence, I have been at great pains to show Distributism’s scientific basis and its industrial examples, which are many, and avoiding any imputation of being (oh horror!) a “mere agrarian.” But now, with two books under my belt, and hardly an agrarian to haunt the bibliographies, I feel I can safely add these authors to my reading list. And so, when the University of Dallas chose Berry’s latest collection of essays, What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, as the book for its pre-semester Faculty Book Discussion [2010], it came as a providential opportunity.

The aversion that so many modern economists have to agrarianism is somewhat strange, given that the generally acknowledged founder of modern economics, Adam Smith, considered himself to be an agrarian. Book IV of The Wealth of Nations discusses “Systems of Political Economy,” which he divides into mercantilist and agricultural systems. In chapter IX of that book, he renders his verdict:

[The Agricultural] system…is, perhaps, the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of political economy, and is upon that account well worth the consideration of every man who wishes to examine with attention the principles of that very important science.

Concerning the mercantilist(who is the original globalist), Smith says,

[B]y encouraging manufacturing and foreign trade more than agriculture, [he] turns a certain portion of the capital of the society from supporting a more advantageous to supporting a less advantageous species of industry.

For Smith, the wealth of a nation is firmly rooted in its fields and farms, and manufacturing justifies itself by its ability to lower the costs to the farmer of the things that cannot be produced on the farm, or can be produced only with great difficulty. There is a clear priority given by Smith to the farm, and it is just this priority that Wendell Berry seeks to revive. 

What Matters? is a collection of essays, and hence not a systematic presentation of some economic “system”; there is not a single chart or table in the whole work. Rather it is an extended critique of the failures of modern economists to comprehend the true nature of their science. This is a rich and pithy critique, one that defies easy summation by a reviewer. For example, Berry has the best one-line summary of the cause of the current crisis, namely the willingness of the banks to sell “a bet on a debt as an asset.” That summarizes several books on the subject.

Berry points out that current economics have severed all connection with the real economy, which he calls “The Great Economy.” More of that economy in a moment, but what really occupies most of our “economists,” he points out, is not really economics at all, but chrematistics. Economics (from oikonomia, “household management”) is about the material provisioning of society; chrematistics is about individuals amassing abstract wealth in the form of money, and has no necessary connection with the material well-being of society, that is, with the production of real goods and services. And although chrematistics is poorly connected to real world oikonomia, its predominance over the real economy can bring that economy down, as it has now and many times in the past. And as long as we practice chrematistics rather than real oikonomia, it will continue to bring the economy down until there is no economy left to raise up. “Our economy,” Berry notes, “has become an anti-economy, a financial system without a sound economic basis and without economic virtues.”

So where does the real economy begin? As for Smith, this real economy begins in the natural order, which means that it begins on the farms, along with the forests, fisheries, fields, and mines. These are the gifts of nature upon which our livelihoods depend. This natural order must be used according to its own nature, which Berry calls “The Kingdom of God” or “The Great Economy.” Berry gives us five principles of the Great Economy:

  1. It includes everything, even the fall of a sparrow. There is nothing outside this economy. “We are in it whether we know it or not or whether we wish to be or not.”
  2. It connects everything to everything. Things within The Great Economy are not so much parts as a participation in the whole, with each thing reflecting the whole.
  3. The Great Economy comprehends humans, but humans cannot give a complete or even adequate description of this Great Economy, nor perceive the whole order by which its elements are connected.
  4. Nevertheless, we cannot violate for long the patterns of this Kingdom without incurring severe penalties.
  5. There is no end to the Great Economy; we cannot by “scientific” or other means get outside of it.

We are commanded to seek the Kingdom of God first, but not exclusively. Doing that would leave the field open to people who seek other kingdoms. Indeed, within the Kingdom of God, the Great Economy, we must build “little economies” by which “we can carve out a narrow circle within which things are manageable by the use of our wits.” These little economies originate, manage, and distribute the secondary values that human work and wit can add to the primary values of the Great Economy. But they must receive these primary values “gratefully and use them in such a way as not to diminish them.” The little economies must be run in harmony with the Great Economy, which means, among other things, that there must be a “law of return,” a law which dictates that anything taken from nature must be given back; “The fertility cycle must be maintained in a continuous rotation.” Of course, some commodities cannot be given back because they are consumed, things such as oil. These must be used conservatively and not for frivolous purposes, or on the assumption that supplies are inexhaustible.

Berry’s example of the need for this harmony, however, is not oil, but soil. Topsoil is something we cannot make. We have no substitute for it, and in fact it escapes scientific description:

For, although any soil sample can be reduced to its inert quantities, a handful of the real thing has life in it. It is full of living creatures. And if we try to describe the behavior of that life we will see that it is doing something that, if we are not careful, we will call “unearthly”: it is making life out of death. Not so very long ago, had we known about it what we know now, we would probably have called it “miraculous.”

Berry is right to use soil as the example, since peak soil rather than peak oilmay turn out to be our greatest problem. We can learn to do without oil, but not without soil. Topsoil is disappearing at an alarming rate, and not being replaced; the law of return is being violated. Further, the soil that remains is being poisoned with toxic chemicals, which then leach into the groundwater. Indeed, some forms of industrial farming use soil only as something to hold the roots and not as a real source of life or nutrients; they would replace it with styrofoam or some other dead substance if they could. This violation of the law of return means that “[t]he industrial economy is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy.”

This pillage reduces the Great Economy to “raw materials” which have only a price, not a principle that needs to be conserved. The price is set by the cult of competition, whose main sentimental tenet is that greed is sufficient to produce the good, merely by producing the goods. Within this cult, every transaction involves a winner and loser.  But competition, elevated to the status of a cult, does not result in the common good. Inevitably, the class of winners narrows and that of losers widens. The winners are not only so in the economic realm, but in the political realm, where they are able to obtain more and more privileges and subsidies for themselves. Such a cult can only lead to dominance by the strongest. Not indeed, the “strongest” in the moral sense, but purely in the economic sense.

Communities cannot survive the cult of competition:

The great fault of this approach to things is that it is so drastically reductive; it does not permit us to live and work as human beings, as the best of our inheritance defines us. Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the law of justice and mercy.

Global economy seeks only to make things where they are cheapest and sell them where they are dearest. But this divorces producers and consumers and means that there can be no responsibility. Only the community can care for its environment, and for its young. For the community that merely exports its natural resources to someone else will end up exporting its young. The first thing a community must do is protect its productive capacity. The economy must look first to local needs, and only then, and from its surplus, to export. It does not import what it can make for itself. But we have reached the state where we cannot actually make anything for ourselves, where we cannot supply our own necessities. If we needed shoes, for example, we no longer have the means to make them. “’Outsourcing’ the manufacture of frivolities is at least partly frivolous; outsourcing the manufacture of necessities is entirely foolish.” The local economy is built on neighborhood and subsistence, and neighborliness requires that we export only after we have met the needs of the community’s subsistence.

Berry gives us a list of 14 assumptions of the “free” market (a market that largely guarantees freedom to some by depriving others) which are dubious at best. A sample of these assumptions:

2. That there can be no conflict between economic advantage and economic justice.

5. That it is all right for a nation’s subsistence to be foreign-based, dependent on long-distance transport, and entirely controlled by corporations.

11. That an economy is a machine, of which people are merely the interchangeable parts.

13. That stable and preserving relationships among people, places, and things do not matter and are of no worth.

14. That cultures or religions have no legitimate practical or economic concerns.

At this point, one must make a fundamental decision. The very terms that Berry proposes are foreign to economic discourse. Terms like “Kingdom of God,” “Great Economy,” “values,” “justice,” “mercy,” and so forth are not ones normally encountered in economic texts. Can economics subject itself to such terms and still remain a “science”? And since Berry proposes no systematic approach to economics, it might be difficult for economists to translate Berry’s terms into their own science. So we must ask, “Should the science of economics be subject to the terms that Berry proposes?”

Two points are relevant here. The first is that in the 19th century, “political economy” tried to remake itself into the “physical” or “deductive” science of “economics.” But clearly, economics is neither a physical nor a deductive science; it is a practical, humane science, one that deals with the human relationships that are necessary for the material provisioning of society. As a humane science, it is subject to higher sciences of human relationships—psychology, sociology, politics, philosophy, and ultimately theology—and these sciences all culminate in a study of justice, which is the natural standard of human relationships, and in love, which is the supernatural standard. Economics cannot divorce itself from these terms and still remain a science.

And in fact it doesn’t. In fact, economics has become a totalizing system claiming the power to explain all things. It is as much a religious system—by another name—as is Berry’s Great Economy. It is a substitute religion with its own creed and its own myth. Its creed underlies all things and its myth, like all myths, explains all things. The central tenet of its creed is that all things are private property, have a price, and are for sale. Its myth is that given enough time, the market will correctly price all things and provide all with liberty (usually undefined or inadequately defined), and that justice will prevail. This is the sentimental capitalism that justifies all current difficulties in the name of ultimate justice, but a justice that is always deferred to the future. Here sentimental capitalism shares its myth with sentimental communism, which is always justifying the present horrors of the gulag in the name of the ultimate—but always deferred—victory of the proletariat.

In Berry’s Great Economy, the future is not deferred, but is made present in the care and conservation of the community and its resources, which have to be passed intact and improved to the next generation. The critique that he presents no system is certainly justified, but misses the point. He sets out the terms that any system must observe if it is to be a true science of economics, and not mere chrematistics. For unless economics is pointless (in which case, why bother with it?), it must serve the real needs of humans and their necessary communities. Chrematistics cannot do this, and economics generally will not do it. In fact, it functions by externalizing the natural and humane orders; it is a totalizing system that leaves out almost everything.

The last word in this should go to Berry, from the last words in his book:

A total economy, for all practical purposes, is a total government. The “free trade,” which from the standpoint of the corporate economy brings “unprecedented economic growth,” from the standpoint of the land and its local populations, and ultimately from the standpoint of the cities, is destruction and slavery. Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice. 

John Médaille is an adjunct instructor of Theology at the University of Dallas, and a businessman in Irving, Texas. He has authored the book The Vocation of Business, edited Economic Liberty: A Profound Romanian Renaissance and just completed Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More.

This article courtesy of The Distributist Review.