The Intentional Peasant: The Peasant ponders problems past and present.
On a recent local talk show, one participant spoke of the homestead as the opposite of the farm. That was a jolt. But in a way, if by farm we mean agribusiness, it is generally true. Homesteading is mostly doing, while industry is involved in making, so the opposite of homesteading would be industry. If we are right in following Aristotle down this ancient trail, then the huge commercial farm qualifies as an industry: employees, wage labor, the whole ugly thing.
On a 1930 visit to a farm in our family in Winchester, Virginia, I decided at the age of four to become a farmer. I would have all the delicious tomatoes I could eat, salt shaker ready in the bib of my overalls, as well as neat animals to play with. I would sell a few of the tomatoes and buy salt.
Fine, said old Walt, but I'd need a few extra dollars for taxes. That was a new thought. What were taxes? I didn't think I needed any of those.
Today, this 40-acre place would be indistinguishable from what we now call a homestead. The annual cash income it generates was probably in the low double digits, and the annual county tax was $4. Paved back roads in rural America in 1930 were rather exceptional, unless one counted the gravel dumped in large ruts by the local farmers.
Absolutely needed commodities came mostly from well-thumbed Sears and Wards catalogs. Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, reflected that his parents were of a single mind on the subject of money; they just didn't spend it. On our family's place, the people doctor and the horse doctor both were paid with the produce of the farm. One of the men once needed a dentist for a particularly difficult extraction. It was a local scandal; the dentist demanded $1, cash money.
The was nothing unusual in all this. It was typical of how a third or more of Americans were still living in 1930. The sons of farmers were trickling back from the big cities, where wages were drying up as the Depression took hold. A good meal at the family kitchen certainly trumped being slopped at a soup kitchen.
Money played a small part
There were stories about industrialists and bankers leaping out of windows, but there really weren't very many, and the farmer wasn't greatly affected by hard times. We didn't owe money `round the neighborhood. Nobody in his right mind would have given any of our people a mortgage in the first place. What little money there was circulated grudgingly. People today can't grasp that commodities and money played so small a part in the rural economy, in the life of the small-holder. The larger farms that already learned to operate on borrowed money suffered and sometimes lost their shirts, but the homestead was inoculated by its own poverty.
It had been worse in other times. We know that money was so scarce in colonial America that our forebears used tobacco, as well as other produce of the soil, as cash. Later, when Richard Kelly Hoskins' great grandfather, a Virginian with Lee, came home from Appomattox at the end of the Civil War, he and his cousin each had a $20 gold piece. The story long told in that family was that this was just about the only money that existed in the whole of King-and-Queen County for the following decade or longer.
Today, cash "ain't what it used to be." Now a consortium of bankers called the Federal Reserve System deliver a product, erroneously called money, into circulation via bank loans. This sleight-of-hand has at last melded commodities and money so that they cannot be told apart.
Moderns have more cash than we ever had in bygone times, but there is a cost. The stuff, sooner than later, loses its purchasing power. It's simply another commodity and heir to all of the problems of most packaged goods.
This history rumination is not a Garden of Eden story. Life was difficult during our first 150 years. If one came down with certain maladies, everybody prayed; that was the only available antibiotic. Adding to that problem, there was no running water in many places, and no flush toilets almost everywhere.
Having suffered as a youth without piped water, I don't recommend it as a lifestyle. A large galvanized tub in the kitchen on Saturday night at least made church smell passably nice on a summer Sunday morning. Still, many of the syndromes we faced today weren't well known 70 years ago. As a child, I never heard of a heart attack, nor did our family know first-hand of a cancer victim. All this rapidly changed. By World War II, heart trouble and cancer were epidemic.
With a large rural population, mail-order merchandising hit its stride. Mass-produced hardware items sold through the catalogs cost less than they did at the local stores. More fabric designs were available in the big books than the general store in town could possibly offer. Probably no one family spent much in buying from the "wish book", but the sum total of those millions of rural purchases built some of our most enduring rural businesses. In these days, the retail catalog heads for its place alongside the chamber pot in the dustbin of history.
With national retailing, America took a ponderous turn toward a commodity economy. Ready-made clothing, including the latest designs in millinery, eventually outsold yard goods. One could even buy a whole house from Sears & Roebuck, all packaged and numbered and shipped to the foundation on a truck. The pendulum began to swing until, as is almost always the case, it swung 'way past all sense.
Today, our commodity economy, as demanded by a dying industrialism, is taken pretty much for granted. It is like background noise: invisible and inaudible. It is simply the ground of the way we live. Everything in America, in ways we hardly suspect, has become a commodity. Things produced at home seem tacky and mean, while things made by hand by craftsmen are dizzyingly expensive. A handmade modern dining table, all impossible curves and cantilevers, can cost $20,000.
At almost the same time, a subtle change has occurred in the way we think: I am what I buy. My possessions are my measure. If a boy wants a date, he needs to borrow Dad's Porsche. A really cool girl wouldn't be caught dead getting out of that rattle-trap of his.
High schools need immense parking lots for the students' cars, with very few real rattletraps among them, even though the general minimum age for driving is 16. Along with the changing focus of the citizen to consumer goods came a national leap into personal debt, culminating in the credit and debit cards that gave a real boost to the family's accumulation of merchandise.
Today, we hardly recognize the commodification that has occurred in the way we live. Schools deliver a product called, erroneously, an education. It comes neatly packaged in individual bundles-style curricula. Each curriculum has been designed by the professional educator to be just what the customer needs to know.
The customers' own opinions on their needs are of course incompetent, else why are there professional educators in the first place? Arguably, it may not be possible today to get an education, properly so-called, in one of our institutions. Education is formative and antecedent to any training -- say in computer science, chemistry, law, whatever. In the strict sense, education is what is supposed to be offered, but isn't, in the college or the university. Training, say in art, is given in a school or an institute.
The costs of delivering this product to the customer -- whatever we choose to call it -- increase steadily. This, as every perceived failure in the system in the system, needs to be repaired with money, more money. Today, it costs much more to administer a school system, to prepare to teach, than it actually does to teach students. Like most mass-produced commodities, the quality of "education" progressively declines.
Cities deliver water that seems to have first passed through a horse. They deliver "police protection" that protects nobody, and they can hardly wait to take over the entrepreneur's garbage-collection business -- so they can encumber the homeowner with 1,000 regulations. Custodial care institutions deliver an inferior product called elder care. Travel agents offer a vacation "package" that will drag harried office workers through Europe in 10 days and teach them what harried really means.
The State delivers something called, with wry humor, government. The consumer of this product has a choice of two convenient containers: Republicrats and Democans. The service, truly in the barnyard sense of the word, provides a slate of rulers for certain periods of time during which many regulations, erroneously called laws, will be added to the 700 pounds of moldering statutes already extant.
These regulations, it is promised, will help further democracy and deter crime -- even though experience shows us that criminals are little affected by them, while the citizen goes about his daily life harassed beyond sanity. But here is another triumph of hope over experience. As more and more citizens are realizing this state of affairs, demand for the product, much like the drug-based medical product, is steadily falling off, a fact reflected in the voting records of the various states.
When citizens in large numbers begin to refuse the culture's carefully packaged effluent, use of the merchandise normally becomes mandatory. So far, only youth needs to attend the mandatory, proprietary meetings known as school. The pressure to consume "higher education" is more subtle, the carrot instead of the stick.
The carrot is the stick
Bob Black has written that the carrot is merely the stick by other means. As voting is more and more perceived as ineffectual, if not immoral, rumblings of mandatory voting can be heard -- posing a neat little problem when a million or so voters write in Conway Twitty or Attila the Hun. We are all familiar with the First Woman's package, erroneously called a health care plan, under which one could go to jail for sneaking into the wrong doctor's office.
The Army offers the young a packaged career in two convenient sizes: 20 or 30-year tours of duty in strange places -- like Long Beach. This is a much more popular product -- a carrot instead of a stick -- even if it is much more expensive than the previous method of assembly, which forcibly dragged sobbing young men whose parents lacked influence out of college and business.
Of course, the stick is ready if or when the carrot proves inadequate to consumption of the product. In Vietnam, the army delivered a product called a body count that failed to satisfy the "consumers" who paid for the "service." But the military did better in the Middle East, where they delivered a victory that didn't harm the vanquished too much in case his services might be required again some time.
A branch of the body count business delivers a commodity, the cruise missile, that titillates the Star Trek aficionados among us and at the same time generates bodies without messing up anyone's uniform even as one's soul is dirtied.
Ivan Illich, brilliant social critic and general pest to the establishment, posits that once again we have accepted that we need these institutions that absorb our individual responsibility, most notably in the manner in which school usurps our need to learn. "All our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships" to all the other specialized institutions.
Activity outside these institutions becomes suspect, second rate or laughable, just as alternate medicine was for so long denigrated by the medical establishment until mainline medicine began to price itself beyond the client's ability to pay. While prayer is no longer the only antibiotic, it is the only powerful nostrum in that category that the citizen is legally permitted to use without the permission of the professional healer.
Just as the average fan couldn't play a respectable inning of baseball, but only consumes prepackaged sports like so many Big Macs, so we have all become a nation of consumers, users-up of the effluent of a creaking industrial system. Lest Our muscles decay from all of our passive entertainments, say television sitcoms tailored into neat half-hour bundles, the local fitness clinic offers prepackaged muscle tone to couch potatoes at respect-inducing rates.
We started out talking about doing as opposed to making, Aristotle's praxis versus poesis. We submitted that homesteading is largely doing, while industry mostly makes things. Although the freeholder is mostly a doer, rare is the homesteader who doesn't have to work at wage labor off the place. We have all experienced the difference between the two.
Somewhere down in our bones, we sense that the much talked-about alienation of modern people came into being with wage labor, with making. Illich opines that survival of our society demands a switch to doing rather than making, a change of our lives to ones of action instead of our present lives of consumption.
Homesteaders, if they don't already know this, in some way feel it; that's why they're homesteaders. But with all due respect to Dr. Illich, this writer's favorite gadfly, societies never survive: they always collapse under the weight of their complexity. This is because general human nature, the way most of us are, is like granite - very, very resistant to change -- until it is crushed.
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|Title Annotation:||differences between industry and homesteading|
|Publication:||Countryside & Small Stock Journal|
|Date:||May 1, 1999|
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