An Introduction to Southern Agrarian Economic Thought


A book thought lost for good that Prof John Crowe Ransom, a major figure in Southern literature in the 20th century, wrote in 1932 has appeared in 2017 in print:  Land!  The Case for an Agrarian Economy (Jason Peters, edr., Notre Dame, Ind.: U of Notre Dame Press, 2017).  

While perhaps not his greatest work, it is timely in that Southerners and the wider world are still being ravaged by the economic illness that is capitalism, namely, periods of great economic growth followed by periods of great economic decline - the boom and bust cycle.  

One of the great strengths of Mr Ransom’s book is that he is able to lay his finger on one of the main problems with capitalism:  

‘ . . . Evidently capital longs solely to earn income, and finds a thousand handsome ways to gratify this longing.  . . . The basic and incessant impulse of capital is reproduction.

‘The fateful thing about this impulse is a property which capital shares with guinea pigs and tame rabbits:  it breeds fast.  It knows no technique of birth control.  It breeds and breeds until, periodically, there has come definitely too much capital into existence.

‘ . . . The business cycle may well be regarded as the consequence of the proclivities of capital for rapid breeding.  In this cycle we may perhaps distinguish three general stages:  (1) Large income from capital and large fresh capitalization out of income; (2) a definite overcapitalization, overproduction, stagnation of business; (3) shrinkage of capital through bankruptcy and liquidation, and a reorganization that amounts to a decapitalization’ (pgs. 35-6).

Those who have been following politics lately know that President Donald Trump has proposed that the peoples of the States enter into the first stage of this cycle once again.  However, this can only be a temporary fix for their economic woes, as stages 2 and 3 will inevitably follow.  And no tinkering with the tax code or labor union negotiations or increased foreign trade and so on can keep that wheel from turning (this is the crux of Chapter 3 of the book, ‘Some Proposed Extinguishers’).

So what can be done?  Mr Ransom’s answer is that many now in the cities should leave the money economy of capitalism for the subsistence farm economy.  There will never be enough factory jobs, etc. to employ everyone.  Progress in production efficiency through technology more or less ensures it:  ‘Technology has resulted in unemployment’ (p. 43).  A return to the small farming village is needed to bring stability to economic life:

‘It is only on its present scale, of course, that the occupational problem is a new one.  It used to be easy for the man whose occupation failed him to fall back upon another one which made all comers welcome and which he could reasonably count upon to support him.  What was the admirable occupation which was always ready in this manner to save the economic society from its own mistakes?  Nothing more nor less than agriculture, the common occupation, or the staple one, even in a society that had developed many; and by long odds the most reliable one, or the stable one.

‘Let us think back for a moment upon an economic era that is past, and that was quite different in its principles from the era of today.  The difference was, perhaps chiefly, that the economic organization was not a whole national system of production and trade; it was the country community, largely sufficient unto itself; unless indeed it was the country household, which was organized as a little independent system going mostly if not completely on its own.  That economic era was dominated by local or even household autonomy; decidedly by little business, not by big business.

‘Let us imagine the old-fashioned country community acting as a fairly self-contained economic unit.  The bulk of its population consisted of farmers, who took their necessities from the land for immediate use.  They found it too laborious, however, to practice a perfect self-sufficiency, and so they had their county town, to which they sold some of their produce, and from which in turn they bought the services necessary to complement their own labors.

‘ . . . Some of these services had to come of course from larger towns elsewhere and from remote countries, and they implied the existence of a national and even an international economic order, which was a money-using order.  But the national and international orders were fairly subordinate to the agrarian or community order, in that the main reliance of the citizens was upon their own home-made products, and in a pinch they could manage with these alone’ (pgs. 20-2).

But the re-establishment of the agrarian way of life must be thorough-going:  Half measures will fail. 

The farm run on the factory model - where mostly cash crops are grown, sold for money, and the necessaries of life bought in the stores - will follow the boom and bust business cycle described by Mr Ransom above in this essay (pgs. 23-6):  ‘Ever since the farmers became money-makers they have had nothing but unsuccess’ (p. 26).  Likewise, ‘I should not imagine that suburban or half-way experiments in agrarianism can succeed . . .’  (p. 110).  ‘A town man both occupied and preoccupied with his business hardly has time for his garden . . .’  (Ibid).  ‘Agrarianism, if it is to mean much, must be a bold movement advocated in a big way’ (p. 111).

For all the good things about Mr Ransom’s essay, there is a downside to it.  It is his falling into the typical after-Schism dialectical tension between the one and the many found so often in the West.  In the final pages of the book, he offers a choice between individualism and socialism: the individualism of the farmer over against the socialism of those in the money economy who are sick of the ups and downs and failures of capitalism (a kind of secularization of the post-Schism religious dialectic: the overemphasis of the Protestants on one Person or Another of the Holy Trinity - the Son in Southern Baptists, or the Holy Ghost amongst Pentecostals, etc.; and the doctrine of the impersonal absolute divine simplicity of the Roman Catholics).  This is a false choice, however, and he even acknowledges it, although apparently unaware of his having done so, earlier in the book in his comments on the small farming village, which we have quoted above.  For there is another category of human social life that is neither individualism nor collectivism, but both, or rather a transcending of the two.  It is the Trinitarian mode of life found in the teachings and in the life of the Orthodox Church:  Individual men and women who nevertheless do not exist in isolation from others but who in fact have existence, life, by being joined to and sharing their life and nature with these other persons, all the while not losing their own uniqueness as persons but strengthening it through loving, living for, their neighbors.  Another Southerner, Prof Richard Weaver, came close to this with what he called ‘social bond individualism’ in the essay ‘Two Types of American Individualism’.  This attempt at transcending the one-and-many dialectic is one of the distinctive traits of Old, Antebellum Southern life which makes her more at home in the Orthodox world than in the post-Schism West.  Those reading Mr Ransom’s book should be aware of his deviation in it (though small and probably unintentional) from what has been the Southern norm.

Our age needs something more than a repackaging of capitalism, socialism, and other failed ideologies of the past.  Mr Ransom’s book offers a place to start.   One can find more depth and breadth on Southern Agrarian economic thought in writers like John Taylor of Caroline or Wendell Berry, but sometimes it is good to walk before we go to running.