Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Life on Crunchy House Manor

The other night, I sat down with the wife and little girls to watch an hour of television and had an insight into Crunchy Conservatism. (Yes, I know. Ironic, isn't it. Well, it was PBS...)

There was this great show on about a really crunchy family. They have lived in the same house for hundreds of years. They raise prize winning cattle according to organic principles. They hire artisan craftsmen at living wages, keep the same employees for generations, appreciate the good and the beautiful. They care about the environment, set aside what used to be an area of industrially farmed land as a deer park, and plant trees. (Though they've had trouble with liberal tree huggers not wanting them to take out the dead ones.) They definitely stick to their traditions. And they certainly enjoy a good meal.

Who are these people? Are they evangelical cattle farmers in east Texas? No, actually they life in Europe. They're Anglican. And they live in Windsor Castle... Yes folks, that would be the royal family.

Now actually, I'm not just being a punk here. As I've thought about it, a lot of what the Crunchy Con movement is yearning for is a return to a much sanitized version of the feudal economy (with artisan farmers instead of peasants) and the medieval manor house. In a sense, that's hardly a surprise. A lot of Rod's thinking is influenced by G. K. Chesterton and others influenced by him. And Chesterton in many ways yearned for a return of the best aspects of the feudal aristocracy.

It was the destruction of the feudal economy (and the town economy that grew along side and to an extent within it) during the industrial revolution which led to the poverty, turmoil and societal breakdown that Dickens wrote about, and which inspired the dark musings of Malthus, Marx and others. For all the abuses that it allowed (and they could be pretty severe) there was an understanding in the feudal economy that in return for the peasants and tenant farmers providing service to the landed family, the family could never fire, write off or abandon their vassals. One of the sharp cultural divisions in the English Civil War (which in many ways made the American Civil War look downright friendly) was between the landed aristocracy mentality of the Cavaliers and the urban commerce sensibilities of the Round Heads. With the darker side of the much vaunted Protestant work ethic, the emergent middle classes who supported Cromwell helped move English (and by influence American) culture down the road to an understanding of the employer/employee relationship where value is quite strictly a matter of what you produce, not who you are.

Now, there's clearly a lot I admire about the manor house economy. But there's also a problem. Only one family owns the manor, and a whole lot of families are expected to be resigned to lives of comparative or real poverty in return for the stability of 'knowing your place' in the feudal system.

Knowing your place didn't have to be a matter of oppression. In Jane Austen's Emma, you see the landed 'gentleman farmer' class in action. Mr. Knightly owns a small estate with working farms and is very much active in overseeing his land. But he isn't normally found out plowing the field. He is of that landed semi-leisure class that had the resources and liberty to read great works, write, collect art or pursue the new experimental sciences while overseeing the family estate. One of his trusted farmers, Robert Martin, is also a character, and in the end marries Emma's protege, Harriet Smith. Martin is a respectable member of the community, hardly a peasant. In that sense, you can see how humane the remnants feudal system had become in parts of England by the late 1700s. He has a certain degree of education (he reads farming journals, but not necessarily literature) and Knightly greatly respects his opinion in regards to the management of the estate. Nonetheless, he is in no way considered Knightly's equal, and there was no provision in the landed gentry society for Martin to aspire to a position such as Knightly's. If Martin desired to one day have his own estate, he would have had to break away from the estate, make his fortune as a member of the professional class, and eventually buy an estate for his heirs.

Now, I have no ambitions of being responsible for tenant farmers and a large estate, but I confess to find what I think the Crunchy ideal is chasing (perhaps without realizing it) attractive. One of the things that attracted Mrs Darwin and I to the Austin area is that there's still so much land available out here that it's not inconceivable that three to five years down the line (and up the corporate salary ladder) we could afford to buy some land a bit farther out here on the north side of town and build our own house. (I have a couple friends at work with large homeschooling families who've done just that.) Every so often I sketch out a few ideas for building a small brewhouse as an outbuilding. Maybe even putting in grape vines someday so that we could vint our own wine. I enjoy building things and making things by hand and knowing where things come from. There is a real sense of accomplishment to it and a pleasure in creating.

However, I would never picture myself wanting to go back to subsistence farming. Those who romanticize the subsistence farmer forget that full time subsistence farmers (as opposed to landed gentry or tenant farmers, who had the resources of the rest of the estate to fall back on) have always lived an incredibly tenuous existence, one which left little time for education, leisure or art.

Even Victor Davis Hanson, who wrote one of the most moving modern books on the life of a small family farm, had to support that farm (which consistently lost money throughout the period described by the book, despite the herculean labors of the entire extended family) on the wages he and his siblings made as professionals in Fresno. Several of our professors at Steubenville owned very small farms outside of town (couple dozen chickens, a goat or two, a large vegetable garden) and felt that their families benefitted a great deal from the agrarian lifestyle. But again, it wasn't farming that paid the bills, it was being a tenured professor.

There is, I think, a lot of value to be found in retaining a certain degree contact with the land, or perhaps more generally, in building and repairing things with your own hands and doing it well. But a largescale return to subsistence farming is not what the doctor is ordering for Western Culture. Indeed, it's having moved away from subsistence farming into a world of increasing occupational specialization which has earned us the leisure to think about these things in the first place.


Fidei Defensor said...

This crunchy con stuff is interesting and I wish you well with it Darwin, get the land north of the city and build the house.

Would it further increase your crunchy con credentials if you were supplementing the family diet with deer, fowl, and fish and whatever else is roaming around Texas?

I've always had a few crunchy-con dreams of my own, high on that list is having access to a woods with a sufficent ammount of Sugar Maples, tap them and make my own syrup. I am not sure if that sort of thing goes on in Texas?

I have also heard that if one is willing to invest the time, a wood burning stove can save a lot of money.

mrsdarwin said...

I read an article a few weeks back that talked about stoves that burned dried corn cobs. Cheap, efficient -- maybe it's the wave of the future.

When you start making your maple syrup, send some my way!

Foxfier said...

Farms, even hobby farms, are good for kids-- if you're willing to never take a vacation longer than a week, and that only about once a year.
(I grew up on a ranch. We had two vacations when I was a kid, one to disney land, one to my mom's maternal grandparents' family reunion. I don't regret a thing.)

There is an amazing power to realizing that you don't do what all the other kids do because you're *needed.* The animals just can't survive without you. (Or you can get pigs and chickens and use automatic feeders, so whoever you have coming to watch the animals only has to show up every few days.)