Wendell Berry has a lot of liberal fans, for thoroughly misguided reasons. His latest book. The Need To Be Whole, has, for once, attracted some real honest criticism. The negative reviews in my opinion don’t go nearly far enough into condemning Berry’s thoroughly bigoted worldview. They correctly condemn the Confederate apologia, but never acknowledge that this has been part of Berry’s work since the very beginning.
Berry, as the Slate review indicates, gets a lot of love from some liberals because they see his work as being anticapitalist. He condemns factory farming and mountaintop removal mining, so they think he must also be in favor of the basic liberal project of increasing individual autonomy. He absolutely is NOT. His work falls within a long tradition of right wing anti-market writing, lamenting the fracturing of ‘communities’ and families by market forces. He is a defender of old, rigid hierarchies and has little use for the idea of concrete, legally enforceable rights.
The book’s subtitle is ‘Patriotism and the History of Prejudice,’ and his purpose is to address racial prejudice. He sees bigotry against Black people as the result of a denigration of useful work adopted by slaveowners. On page 297, he quotes John Quincy Adams’ recollection of a conversation with John C Calhoun. Calhoun stated that he himself would lose all his standing in his community were he to employ a white servant in his home, because domestic work was fit only for Black slaves. Berry claims that this denigration of manual labor seeped out from the plantation aristocrats into Southern white people in general, and therefore caused white people to dislike Black people, especially if those white people were poor themselves and had to do their own shit work.
His position on the nobility of manual labor is, to say the very least, ahistorical. Genesis 3:17 -19 makes it clear that hard work is Adam’s curse: “And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Aristotle and Plato both believed that leisure — the absence of hard work — was the only source of culture and that some people were just born to be slaves doing shit work. The idea that exhausting manual labor should be avoided wasn’t invented in 1800.
In furtherance of his contention that we can solve racism by doing really hard manual labor, he spends a lot of time praising the freedom of subsistence farming. On page 94 he states that in 1945 ‘’nearly all the people who lived [on the 1,501 farms in Henry County KY] on those farms, whether owners or tenants or hired help, also lived from them, and did so entirely by the employment of (free) solar energy.” Subsistence farmers, in his ideal world, would almost never be consumers, whom he argues are ‘captives’ of the industrial economy. (Page 302.) On page 95, after he talks about those Henry County farmers living entirely from their own production, he mentions that the consumer goods the farmers bought — “sugar, spices, coffee, etc” — were “luxuries, things that could have done without.” He actually argues that slaves had more ‘freedom’ because there were ‘rainy days when there was less to do’ (page 303). He notes that slaves could hunt for meat and often that hunting provided most of what they ate. This meat was, usually, possum, raccoon, or squirrel and rarely venison.
So, does he have any examples of white people abandoning their bigotry after doing farm labor with Black folk? No, of course not. In fact, the example he does give states precisely the opposite. On page 451, he quotes Prof Pete Daniel: “in rural areas, blacks and whites necessarily worked side by side, and despite white supremacy, friendly relationships developed across the color line. Industrious African American farmers deferred when necessary and earned the respect of their white neighbors.” (italics mine.) Berry glosses on this quote: “By ‘deferred’ Prof. Daniel pretty clearly means that the black people, in dealing with their white neighbors, observed the etiquette of conventional prejudice. The deference indicates at least that the convention was mutually understood, dealt with and surpassed.” By completely abandoning any pretense to dignity and self-respect, Black people could have decent relationships with their white neighbors.
Berry actually gets worse in that paragraph. He goes on to say “This suggests that, under the influence of those ‘friendly relationships,’ the need to defer might gradually have worn away if the rural communities had not been unsettled by more war, depression, and the onset of ‘social mobility.’” He might just as well have blamed ‘outside agitators.’ As much as this quote demonstrates Berry’s appalling insensitivity, it also shows his ‘solution’ to all social problems: ‘community.’ In his world, ‘neighborliness’ can overcome any and all conflicts. He gives an example earlier in the same chapter, on page 450, of how his neighbors used to ‘work swap’ during harvest time. Local crews took turns helping each other complete the harvest and were ‘paid’ by the help they recieved on their own farms at the same time. This system was, as Berry describes it, ‘orderly and informal.’ That is, there were no messy contracts or documents delineating each participants’ rights or obligations; the system just sorta happened. So long as everyone was a ‘neighbor,’ everyone got help.
The obvious problem with this system is summed up beautifully by the question posed in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who then is a ‘neighbor?’
I will defer my answer to that to Berry’s fellow Kentuckian, Tom T Hall, as performed by Jeannie C Riley: Harper Valley PTA.
So long as the ‘community’ gets to define who is a ‘neighbor’ with no outside oversight, the community is going to exclude some people for very bad reasons. The entire justification for the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act was that the South WASN’T ‘dealing’ with the conventional prejudice! Further, anyone who didn’t fit in for reasons of having sex wrong, doing religion wrong or not at all, or being female and not deferring to men was excluded from ‘neighbor, ‘ which then had harsh economic consequences. Anyone outside Berry’s charmed circle had to have enough money to pay for the work others got without paying, which of course damaged their own farms. Their choice was to conform or leave.
This last point, the ‘conform or leave’ aspect of Berry’s informal community of ‘neighborliness’ goes unspoken in his book, but is the main force behind today’s fascist resurgence. Paul Kingsnorth describes how the “Machine” — his word for the industrial, consumer-oriented market economy — destroys the family and ‘spiritual’ life, by which he means traditional authorities like local rich people, the Church, and fathers. Their position is that if we just left everyone alone, these local authorities would care for ‘their people’ adequately. This is the same argument used by George Fitzhugh in defense of slavery, that slaveowners and husbands knew what their families — including slaves — needed and would provide it. (See Fitzhugh’s book ‘Cannibals All! Or Slaves Without Masters.’) If this were true, we would have no need for child abuse laws or domestic violence shelters.
I became a liberal because I want to live in a world where everyone can rely on having enough food, shelter, health care, and education to live a decent life even if their families of origin can’t provide it. I don’t want anyone to have to tug their forelocks to their Betters to get to eat or live indoors, or, ‘observe the etiquette of conventional prejudice.’ The market economy is the best solvent to destroy those old structures of enforced conformity.