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Williams, Lasch, and Simple Narratives of Decline and Progress

One basic account of modernity holds that we are leaving behind a rural past for an urban future. Some see in this account a story of decline. A golden age is passing. We are spiraling into a soulless, dystopian future full of alienation and excess. Others see in this same basic account a story of progress. We are leaving behind a backward age of rural idiocy for an enlightened age of increased choice and prosperity. Some see a simple narrative of decline, others a simple narrative of progress. Yet these pervasive narratives are flip sides of the same coin. They share the premise of a vanishing countryside.

Two underappreciated classics of cultural criticism offer an equally underappreciated critique of these twin narratives of decline and progress: Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City (1973) and Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991). Indeed, these works are themselves twins of a sort. Williams focuses on pastoral decline narratives in English history, offering a few thoughts on narratives of progress. Lasch focuses on narratives of progress in American history, offering a few thoughts on decline narratives. They both agree that these narratives oversimplify and distort, that they must be abandoned in order to confront the pressing social and environmental ills of the actual countryside (and, indeed, of modernity itself). Given contemporary debates about food and farming, we would do well to reconsider their call for a more complicated narrative of modernity and the place of the working countryside within it.

It is of course true that the number of farms and farmers declined precipitously in the United States and Europe throughout the twentieth century as cities grew. Fewer than two percent of Americans now earn their living as farmers. The problem is that simple narratives of progress and decline actually deflect attention away from the complexity of these transformations by asserting a vanishing countryside. As Williams points out, “A working agriculture, a rural economy in any of its possible forms, simply had to persist.”[1] We all must eat, after all. Agriculture has become more centralized and industrial. Farms have become acreage extensive and capital and energy intensive. The modern account of leaving behind the countryside is, therefore, as much about ideology as history. For, as Williams shows in his study of pastoralism in English literature and social thought, nostalgia for a lost rural golden age began long before farming was marginalized in English history. Indeed, Williams (and later Jean-Luc Nancy) finds this to be something of a perennial trope in Western culture as a whole.[2]

The nuanced Williams acknowledges that the pastoral opposition of an idealized countryside and an insidious city has its uses. It often provides a channel for incisive critiques of industrial modernity, and it often captures a hunger for a less alienated existence:

The means of agricultural production—the fields, the woods, the growing crops, the animals—are attractive to the observer and, in many ways and in the good seasons, to the men working in and among them. They can then be effectively contrasted with the exchanges and counting-houses of mercantilism, or with the mines, quarries, mills, and manufactories of industrial production. That contrast, in many ways, still holds in experience.[3]

The pastoral’s narrative of decline often captures real experiences of dislocation and loss. It is also important, as environmental critics have pointed out, because it imagines nature in important ways.

But pastoral oppositions entail “an ideological separation between the processes of rural exploitation, which have been, in effect, dissolved into the landscape, and the register of that exploitation, in the law courts, the money markets, the political power and the conspicuous expenditure of the city.”[4] The idealization of the countryside often obscures or even elides the difficulty of rural work, the exploitation of rural workers, the degradation of the environment, and the economics of the countryside. It draws what we might call a pastoral veil over these realities. In imagining the countryside as a past or passing premodern golden age, the pastoral also veils the history of the actual countryside. As Lasch notes, “Nostalgic representations of the past evoke a time irretrievably lost and for that reason timeless and unchanging.”[5]

Consider, as a contemporary illustration of the pastoral veil, the quaint images on cartons of milk and eggs, on packages of sausages and ground beef: green fields, grazing animals, red barns, farmers in straw hats and coveralls. These pastoral images have very little to do with the actual (and often quite problematic) realities of the industrial agriculture that produced the milk, eggs, and meat. They certainly do not show animals in confinement operations or migrant workers in industrial processing plants. It is as if when we enter the deli and dairy aisles of the grocery store we have passed through a time warp and entered the golden age of the countryside. The pastoral images deflect critical scrutiny away from actual agricultural realities and their histories.

Simple narratives of progress, in which we are thankfully leaving the rural past behind, also deflect scrutiny. Such a narrative allows most of us to forget that our food has any production history at all. Williams writes, “It is one of the most striking deformations of industrial capitalism that one of our most central and urgent and necessary activities should have been so displaced, in space or in time or in both, that it can be plausibly associated only with the past or with distant lands.”[6] When we do consider the continuing reality of agriculture, criticisms of the current system of industrial agriculture are brushed away since it is considered the only way to feed the world.[7] We might call this the progressivist veil. Williams holds that this is not just a narrative for neo-liberals, claiming that among leftists “it has been commonplace since Marx to speak, in some contexts, of the progressive character of capitalism, and within it of urbanism and of social modernization.”[8] Williams concludes, “Against this powerful tendency, in which forms of socialism offer to complete the capitalist enterprise, even the old, sad, retrospective radicalism seems to bear and to embody a human concern.”[9]

In The True and Only Heaven, Lasch holds that all simple narratives of progress avoid the question of limits. For him, “The belated discovery that the earth’s ecology will no longer sustain an indefinite expansion of productive forces deals the final blow to the belief in progress.”[10] The proponents of industrial agriculture tend to accept the significant environmental (and social) degradation of this system as the unavoidable cost of progress, as the only way things can be. Their progressivist narrative frames any concerns about long-term limits as naïve or even fanatical. Yet any number of critics has cogently demonstrated the destructiveness and unsustainability of this chemical and oil soaked system. Williams argues:

If we are to survive at all, we shall have to develop and extend our working agricultures. The common idea of a rural lost world is then not only an abstraction of this or that stage in a continuing history (and many of the stages we can be glad have gone or are going). It is in direct contradiction to any effective shape of our future, in which work on the land will have to become more rather than less important and central.[11]

Lasch concludes that “the idea of progress has the curious effect of weakening the inclination to make intelligent provision for the future” and “nostalgia, its ideological twin, undermines the ability to make intelligent use of the past.”[12] They distort our ability to see either the past or the future. Addressing simple decline narratives, he contends that we need memory, not nostalgia:

Strictly speaking, nostalgia does not entail the exercise of memory at all, since the past it idealizes stands outside time, frozen in unchanging perfection. Memory too may idealize the past, but not in order to condemn the present. It draws hope and comfort from the past in order to enrich the present and to face what comes with good cheer. It sees past, present, and future, as continuous. It is less concerned with loss than with our continuing indebtedness to a past the formative influence of which lives on in our patterns of speech, our gestures, our standards of honor, our expectations, our basic disposition toward the world around us.[13]

Addressing simple narratives of progress, Lasch contends that we need hope, not optimism: “If we distinguish hopefulness from the more conventional attitude known today as optimism—if we think of it as a character trait, a temperamental predisposition rather than an estimate of the direction of historical change—we can see why it serves us better, in steering troubled waters ahead, than a belief in progress.”[14] For Lasch, memory and hope avoid making either a golden age out of the past or a utopia out of the future. They allow us to see past, present, and future with some clarity.

Williams also concludes that we must somehow escape from simple narratives of progress and decline: “Between the simple backward look and the simple progressive thrust there is room for long argument but none for enlightenment. We must begin differently: not in the idealizations of one order or another, but in the history to which they are only partial and misleading responses.”[15]

In the present day, when food and farming are under new scrutiny, we have another opportunity to break free from simple narratives of decline and progress, to pull back the pastoral and progressivist veils, “to begin differently.” This means first acknowledging that agriculture continues to be crucial and problematic, that the working countryside is neither a golden age in decline nor the best of all possible worlds. Its problems need to be addressed with memory and hope.

Notes

1. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford, 1973), p. 300.

2. See Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1991).

3. Williams, The Country and the City, p. 46

4. Ibid, p. 46.

5. Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1991), p. 83.

6. Williams, The Country and the City, p. 300.

7. Walden Bello and Vandana Shiva have critiqued how the West now imposes this system on the rest of the world, a new agricultural colonialism based on agribusiness instead of the plantation. See Walden Bello, The Food Wars (London: Verso, 2009) and Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology (Dehra Dun: Natraj, 1993).

8. Williams, The Country and the City, p. 37.

9. Ibid.

10. Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, p. 529.

11. Williams, The Country and the City, p. 300.

12. Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, p. 82.

13. Ibid., p. 83.

14. Ibid., p. 81.

15. Williams, The Country and the City, p. 37.

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