4 out of 4 stars
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Radical Agrarian Economics by Anna Faktorovich is an ambitious book. Faktorovich sets out to write a textbook for agrarian economic theory that situates the New Agrarian movement, represented by Wendell Berry, in the history of formal economics. Briefly, agrarianism is the idea that subsistence-level economic activity, like a small family farm, is better for society, the individual, and the world than macro-corporations and globalized economics. Agrarians like Wendell Berry write that the growing separation between the producer and the consumer is dehumanizing, as people become more isolated from the source of their survival like food and water. He advocates small community efforts that aim at economic survival with built-in leisure time, not maximizing profit at the expense of human and natural flourishing.
Faktorovich groups economic movements over the last millennium into four categories: feudalism, capitalism, communism, and agrarianism, while acknowledging the difficulties of treating agrarianism as a formal theory on par with the other three. Agrarianism, Faktorovich points out, is less a cohesive theory and more a loosely-connected series of ideas, values, and experiences that direct people’s economic decisions. For this reason, Faktorovich focuses on Berry’s non-fiction writings as the most consistent representation of the New Agrarian movement.
Faktorovich views Wendell Berry and the New Agrarian movement as a fascinating confluence of far left and far right criticisms of capitalistic economic theory and culture. One of the challenges of comparing New Agrarianism and other economic theories is the lack of statistical research surrounding agrarianism. Faktorovich pours herself into the challenge of filling this void. In the first half of the book, she documents her own extensive metrical research of anecdotal situations Berry uses in his writings, allowing readers to think about agrarianism in the same terms as capitalism and communism: revenue, profit, economies of scale, gain. The book includes an extensive and highly specific glossary of Berry’s most commonly-used economic terms, making it an excellent companion volume to the primary source material.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is Faktoriovich’s historical summaries. She clearly has a wide-reaching grasp of the history of economics, both macro and micro. She chronicles the little-known story of New Agrarianism from its roots in Shays’ Rebellion in 1783 and carefully explains the theory’s relationship with industrialization. This summary places Wendell Berry firmly in context, while also highlighting his uniqueness: whereas many New Agrarians become radicalized over time, Berry has remained stalwart in his original ideas.
She does the same sweeping work with greater economic history as well, summarizing feudalism, communism, and capitalism with facility. In this historical analysis, Faktorovich positions agrarianism as an economic bookend, being both the earliest and latest theory in Western economics. She gives a fascinating defense of feudalism, an excellent summary of communism, and a fairly sound explanation of capitalism. Her expertise as a scholar of Marxism with a less solid grasp on capitalism is discernible here as she equivocating capitalism and consumerism, the only faulty part in the book.
Faktorovich resists the temptation to reduce New Agrarianism to simply another money theory. She recognizes the “righteous nature at the center of the movement,” and understands how that moral and spiritual motivation will necessarily affect decision-making in the economic sphere. Basically, she knows that New Agrarians value other things—nature, beauty, self-reliance—more than profit, which leads to an economic theory difficult to define but impossible to ignore.
Faktorovich is not wholly wooed by the agrarian dream. She recognizes agrarianism as an increasingly popular alternative to modern capitalism, one with reasonable theoretical foundations and a strong historical pedigree. She spends the last section of the book on a critique of the practical fiscal benefits of agrarian life, running detailed analyses of purported agrarian earnings against comparable earnings in the public marketplace, and finds that the numbers are unconvincing. Faktorovich has strong philosophical disagreements with some of the tenets of agrarianism as well, particularly its regressive gender roles that assign women to the home with little outside contact or influence. In the end, even though the dream of agrarianism is undeniably beautiful, Faktorovich concludes that in its present iteration it cannot become a dominant modern economic theory. She does leave open the possibility of versions or portions of agrarianism becoming more mainstream, and ends with an appeal to readers to think carefully about such radical theories as agrarianism before discounting them.
I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars. It’s a concise, well-written, detailed work of economic history and theory that accomplishes its two goals of situating Wendell Berry and New Agrarianism in history, and considering the practicality of these ideas in the modern world. Faktorovich has indeed written a textbook for the student of agrarian economics, but she has done more: she has crafted an elegant and accessible history of economic thought. Her book is necessary for any reader of Wendell Berry, but also for thoughtful people from all disciplines with an interest in money, time, and the good life.
Radical Agrarian Economics
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