Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Capitalism, agrarianism, and the free market

While my updates have been sparse lately, it's not because I have nothing to say.  Things have been busy and I've been tired, but I've been reading a lot and thinking a lot.  I would very much like to plan out a clear, unified series of posts to share my ideas about agriculture and economics, but the more I plot it out in my head, the bigger it becomes -- and the less likely that I'll ever post it.  Rather than let these ideas just sit in my head, though, I'm compromising: I'll write a disconnected, rambly, disorganized series of posts instead!  Lucky you.

First, I need to talk about some definitions.  So today I'm going to give you my working definitions of capitalism, agrarianism, and the free market.

Wikipedia defines capitalism as "an economic system in which capital assets are privately owned and items are brought to the market for profit. . . . Central elements of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets, and wage labor."

Often capitalism is considered the same as the free market.  But here's the definition of free market: "A free market is a market structure in which the distribution and costs of goods and services, along with the structure and hierarchy between capital and consumer goods, are coordinated by supply and demand unhindered by external regulation or control by government or monopolies."

They're not quite the same, although there is overlap.  A capitalist economy may include plenty of regulation by government, or conversely it could be rife with monopolies.  It's capitalist enough -- all the assets are owned by individuals or corporations -- but people who want to buy or sell goods are not doing so in actual freedom.  It's not a free market when I can't buy raw milk -- that's government regulation.  It's not a free market when Wal-Mart is the only game in town and so I have to pay Wal-Mart's price -- that's a monopoly.

Capitalism is also distinguished by its focus on wage labor.  It is an economy based on cash.  You trade your labor for cash, and then you trade your cash for other people's goods.  In a free market, however, it is possible to avoid relying on cash and wages by owning your own land or business, producing what you need by yourself, and bartering or trading favors rather than buying or hiring.  That's a free market, but it isn't the typical capitalist paradigm.

When I was a kid, if the toilet was broken or the house needed a coat of paint, my dad used to say, "I am not good at fixing things around the house.  Luckily I am good at market research.  So we can have everyone do what they do best.  I can do market research, and with the money I earn at that job, I can hire someone to take care of the plumbing and painting."  That's the capitalist dream, right there.  Everyone does what they do best, and trade it around.  Everyone can specialize.  No one needs to do a kind of work they don't like.

My dad even said once that there is no reason to sing when we have CD's full of professionals who can do it much better!  And there, you see, is where I part ways with the capitalists.

G. K. Chesterton is famous for saying "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."  My version is "Anything worth doing is worth doing yourself."  Sure, I don't sing as well as Celine Dion.  But I like to sing!  Why should I hire someone else to sing for me when I enjoy it more when I do it myself?

And once I've gone that far, why not fix a toilet?  Why not paint a house?  Most of us don't really love our jobs.  (I do, but my "job" doesn't fit into a capitalist scheme, so let's talk about the average person.)  If you make widgets for a living, it is possible you may get tired of making widgets.  And yet you're not ready to go to sleep yet.  What are you going to spend your time doing?  May as well paint a house -- it's a change, and change often feels restful.  You'll also get some exercise and sunshine.  You can get the house exactly the way you want it, instead of just a contractor's close estimate.  You don't have to deal with the possibility they may cheat you or overcharge you.  You can just paint the house.

That will also save you money, of course.  If you keep up this way, maybe you'll be able to cut back your hours at the widget factory and have more time you can spend how you want, instead of how your boss wants.

Of course, it's a matter of taste.  Some people enjoy their jobs and don't mind working eight or more hours a day, but when they get home they want to relax and just watch TV, not fix toilets and paint houses.  Other people (like me) take a ton of pride in doing productive things for themselves, don't really like buying or consuming things, and would rather do almost anything than work an eight-hour day for somebody else.

A free market leaves room, at least theoretically, for both choices.  But the latter choice is not really capitalist.  Capitalism is about producing one thing, and consuming everything else you need.  But it is also possible to produce a great many things and consume very little.  You could even, if you're very dedicated, produce everything you need and not hold down a job at all.

And that leads us to agrarianism, defined as "a social philosophy or political philosophy which values rural society as superior to urban society, the independent farmer as superior to the paid worker, and sees farming as a way of life that can shape the ideal social values."  Agrarianism isn't an economic system or a political system which mandates farming for everybody.  Instead it's a system of thought that prefers farming.

I prefer farming, or better yet, homesteading.  But I don't think everybody should do it.  I'd like to see more people do it, for many reasons.  First, I think more people want to than are able to, thanks to a market that isn't really free and a system that is weighted toward big farms, big business, and big money.  Second, I think many people who aren't currently into it would like it.  Living in the country is more pleasant for most of us than living in the city -- especially if you aren't rich.  Being your own boss is also pretty nice, and many people would jump at the chance to do it if they thought it was possible.  And third, I think homesteading is a great deal more efficient than wage work.  Isn't it a little counter-intuitive to spend eight hours a day on your butt staring at a screen (which is terrible for your health) and then spending your hard-earned wages so that you can work out on an elliptical machine?

There are many other reasons why I identify as agrarian, and I think I'll have to leave all those for another post.  But I am certainly not alone.  Famous agrarian writers include Hesiod, Virgil, Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, Thomas Hardy, and Leo Tolstoy.  In every generation, while people flow into the cities toward greater industrialization, there has always been a counter-current, sometimes slower and sometimes faster, of people getting back to the land.

Agrarianism is not in opposition with the free market.  There are free-market agrarian systems and communist agrarian systems and feudal agrarian systems.  The opposite of agrarianism is industrial capitalism, or you could call it urban capitalism.  Rather than an economic system, it's a value system.  People who judge others by how much money they make, who sneer at you for wearing thrift-shop or handmade clothes, who couldn't stand to quit their job because that job gives them a sense of self-worth, are reflecting the values of industrial capitalism.  They measure status by wealth and job title, and have a strict delineation between work, which they are paid to do, and entertainment, which they pay for the privilege of doing.  They would be ashamed to be caught doing something themselves that others hire out.

The agrarian value system holds paid work in low esteem, and agrarians would prefer not to work for someone else.  Handmade crafts or foods are considered more valuable than storebought versions.  Entertainment time is spent on free activities or productive activities like crafting.  They would be ashamed to have to pay someone else to do something they should be able to do for themselves.

Next up: reasons for the downfall of the American small farm.  Or else, How the industrial capitalist dream falls short.  Or else, my views on private property.  Who knows?  I hope to get to all these topics eventually, if I can find the time.  I feel like I owe you guys, because I'm learning so much and I think it needs to be shared.


Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, I share your sentiments about homesteading and self-sufficiency, but in "real life," I don't know how much of it I could pull off! Take my container vegetable garden. While I have FINALLY proven to myself that I can coax seeds to grow, I'm still not convinced that any of the plants is going to yield something for me to eat. I've just seen a third pepper flower shrivel up and fall instead of turning into a fruit. =(

I looked it up and learned that temperature extremes can do that to peppers. (Well, it is the monsoon season. It's either cool with rain all the time or a temperature that rivals the summer.) So I guess I should put the peppers where they would be in the shade more often . . . but then they wouldn't get so much rain. And since I'm the only one watching out for these green babies but am out of the house about twelve hours a day, I need them to be as "self-sufficient" as possible. (Was that last sentence funny?)

Anyway, never mind my woes. I'm sure that if I had more time at home and were growing them out of the ground instead of in pots, I'd have more success. Right now, it's kind of enough to know that they aren't dead!

Back to your main point, which I do agree with. It's laughably inefficient to work for wages and then use the wages to get yourself something you could have directly procured yourself. And wouldn't it be nice if I could also put my money where my mouth is and grow my own vegetables instead of buying them from the store? =P But this is also the same argument I've been using when it comes to homeschooling. I'm a teacher by training, by trade, and by natural inclination. Why would I outsource my children's learning to an expensive institution and then break my spirit slaving away in an office to pay for it? Let the critics say what they like about "socialisation": it won't be worth that level of hell. If I went what has become the conventional route, I'd break down in tears after a year, quit my job, and homeschool anyway, for the sake of self-preservation.

And in a sense, that's what work is, isn't it? A source of self-preservation. I just like to think that we should do work that feeds our spirits as well as our bodies--and that we should remember that wages are just a means to an end!

love the girls said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sheila said...


Self-sufficiency isn't just about gardening. People can make their own clothes (or upcycle thrift-store finds), cook from scratch, fix their own house, make toys out of wood. Anything that makes you feel proud of your accomplishment, that makes you feel creative, that's a better use of your time than working to get the money to buy a similar thing. Homeschooling is an excellent example, and that is one reason why I plan to do it. The thought of going to work right now just to spend all my wages on daycare strikes me as absolutely ridiculous!

I knew you were an agrarian in temperament. ;) Not loving working for "the man" is a noticeable sign. Reading the things you do is another.

The trouble is, in real life agrarianism requires land. You can't just switch over to self-reliance with no access to the earth's resources. With your containers and your balcony, you are more at "agrarian school" -- *learning* how to grow things, and what things grow well. With real land, you could do much more, and if the peppers failed, there would be the squash. The more I grow, the less I take to heart the failures. This year I have had squash bugs AND squash borers AND aphids AND flea beetles AND blossom end rot AND some weird bug on the beans. But I still harvest quite a bit of stuff amidst the dying vines, so it doesn't really faze me. If I had a cow, 20 chickens, and a cornfield, I'd be even less put out if one thing failed to produce.

But -- to speak of reality again -- in our current climate, at least in America, cash is necessary. You need to pay your mortgage and the property tax, at least. So most writers on the topic encourage homesteaders to keep at least one off-farm job in the family, at least part-time. Some do internet businesses, work-from-home stuff, etc., but some work has to be done. And even if you do that, it can take years of careful planning to even GET out to the land. We've been "going to get out there in five years" for the last three years. Still no closer. It shouldn't be this difficult (and I'm going to talk soon about why it is).

One thought about your garden is to find out what people near you are doing. Do you know anyone else who gardens in your area, monsoons and all? Or search for gardening blogs from your city. I have a few Virginia gardening blogs I follow so I can see what they're growing and what challenges they have. It may be that peppers, or at least that variety of peppers, can't take your weather. Or it might be that where you are, they're more of a cool-season crop. Your best bet is to grow those things that can be commercially produced in your climate, because those will be the best suited.

But ... it may just be the fact that they're in pots. With such shallow roots, plants just aren't so tolerant of roasting and drenching.

If all else fails ... I hear mushrooms can be grown in a closet, with no light at all!

Belfry Bat said...

That's very likely, about mushrooms; the trick, then, is to grow only (edible) mushrooms!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...