Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The (partial) myth of the great difference between the pre-industrial country and capitalist cities

The existence of a pure country acting as a repository of both communal ethics and traditions is taken for granted in some circles, in places that look fondly back to the past for a solution to today's problems. According to this view, believed in as well by 19th century Romantics in England as well as by sections of hippy culture in the '60s and '70s, cities are places of deracine corruption, the product of a profound split between humanity and nature, one that can only be overcome by going back to the land. There is much truth in this view, as much as cities offer both alienation and isolation, as well as the potential for newness and connection, but the notion that going back to the country takes one back to pre-capitalist values, is near sighted in the extreme.

The reason is simple: capitalism is not simply made up of industry, of factories, technology, and Dickensian social states. It's also a system of property rights and social relations, and those features of capitalism exist as much in the countryside as in the cities. Marx and later thinkers, in particular historian E.P. Thompson, have pointed out that changes in the idea of what property was and what rights owning property entailed that happened in the countryside established part of the foundation for the development of first small scale capitalism and then industrial capitalism. The transition to individual ownership as entailing absolute property rights, making the farmer a small businessman, was also a transition to the sort of market values praised by right-wing economic libertarians today.

The countryside, especially in the United States but also in other countries like England, isn't a repository of communal values anymore, values inherited from the shell of a feudal system, so much as it is a repository of bourgeois values covered with a patina of social conservatism originating in a pre-capitalist state, an empty superstructure preserving the non-progressive forms of those societies. In the U.S. pockets of pre-industrial ideas and ways of thinking do exist. Places like the South, through the establishment of brutal feudalistic relations during slavery, the deep cowboy country of the West, formed by the absolute need for cooperation on the frontier, surviving Mexican society in states in the South and West that were originally part of Mexico , pockets of the Northwest, and possibly traditional New England villages, preserve some of the ethic. Beyond that, however, the countryside is predominately bourgeois in its attitudes, an example of what William S. Burroughs said of Harry S. Truman: that it has the mind of a haberdasher, or small hat salesman.

Politically, if you look at where the biggest supporters of the Tea Party are, of free market policies linked to anti-Statism, in the United States, it's the countryside, the agricultural country, that has the biggest concentration. Glenn Beck appears in front of a barn in the Midwest in the cover of his book "The Real America". Rural society praises not only government non-intervention but the aggressive positive value of buying and selling, the ideal of being an owner, manager, and businessman, marketing yourself, and lifting yourself up by your bootstraps in order to become another Sam Walton some day. True, there is in fact a lot of social conservatism in these areas, and a lot of religiosity as well, but even there none of it threatens their basic economic values . Protestant churches, especially Fundamentalist ones, encourage a basic individualism in both action and belief that starts with the Bible relying on individual interpretation and ends with the importance of individual faith against works as path to heaven. Jesus feeding the poor doesn't register, just your personal faith, going to Church every Sunday, and avoiding non-Godly culture. That social conservatism and bourgeois values can coexist isn't quite as strange as it might seem, because individual responsibility feeding into the Protestant work ethic is the justification of much of their moralism, certainly as it concerns gays, sexual freedom, and women's rights.

The capitalist countryside can also be considered a transitional form of social life, one that exists between the archaic thought of pre-capitalist society and the full worldview of capitalist society that includes social liberalism as one of its components. The city provides an outlet for people frustrated with the static shell of the hypocritical countryside , a place that preaches freedom while restricting people in practice, but in doing so also sows the seeds of what's to come next. Once social and economic liberalism have been fully realized the downsides of bourgeois society become evident, and people try to find positive solutions. The capitalism of the cities, decried by conservatives for its facilitation of social liberalism, has provoked people to create alternatives to the alienation that they experience through the organization of communities as neighborhoods, initiatives to improve the community, social centers, initiatives for work, and housing that's less personally destroying. In my opinion, all of it prefigures a better society that combines social liberalism with collective values.

I also think that conservatives have also been mistaken in thinking that it's the social liberalism of the cities alone that leads to some of the social problems they stereotype cities as having. Instead, what in my opinion contributes more to the reality behind their racialized conception of social problems, is the intersection of alienation and estrangement in capitalism with aspects of capitalist culture that make use of the worst possibilities social liberalism has to offer. In experiencing discrimination, people want to fight back through pursuing what our society portrays as the point of life. There are quite a few other ways to respond, though, and many people in these communities are working to establish better alternatives.

The way out of the crisis people feel in the disconnection created by life in cities, the aspects of city life that resembles being in an anonymous borg, mostly experienced by the poor, isn't to go to back to the country in search of a purity not found in the city. That part of society is not only substantially the same beneath the patina of social conservatism on top but is also very vocal about defending the most alienating tendencies of modern life. Even the closeness to nature present in the country has to be balanced against the anti-nature opinions and points of view that many residents possess, that see nature as something just to be exploited through modern agriculture instead of something to be preserved. Instead, the way out is to create something new. Newness can be fostered both in small and medium towns as well as in cities. Perhaps the country needs to be transformed itself in order to reflect the new sense of community that's being constructed around the country, in a role reversal. Perhaps instead of going back to the country for wisdom, parts of culture of the city should be brought back to the country in order to establish a new fusion, a new synthesis of culture and economic activity, one that doesn't negate what has come before but that adds to and deepens it in harmony with what has been learned about where the future is going.

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