Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Part 2)

Mendocino County

Parts |1|2|3|

August 18, 2009 Ukiah Valley, Mendocino, North California

Soon after it was published in the early seventies, I grabbed Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals off the shelf. Every few years since, I’ve reread it and continue to find jewels. Alinsky was firm that if we are to succeed in community organizing, we must be cognizant of history, have a sense that our actions fit into a larger context, that we aren’t alone. As you have seen in Part 1, we are not the first who have confronted these problems, though ours have become more threatening in very broad Earth-wide terms. Allow me to take you back further.

Not long ago the great majority of Americans lived on farms or in small villages supporting those farmers. Almost all of them had personal gardens and fruit trees and raised chickens. Even within the villages, not a few owned a few goats and the yearly pig. I recall it well when the first “supermarket” came to my home town in the fifties. My farmer parents never raised another garden except for a couple of tomatoes. Instead, they concentrated on modernizing their farming methods beginning with buying expensive equipment, which required Mom to work in town, as Dad did as well in the winter repairing tractors. My ancestors’ sustainable family farms became shrouded in tales recounted at increasingly rare family gatherings. Because of soaring farming costs, children scattered and the old mutually supportive extended families withered.

So, I’m a romantic. In my first decade, I lived on the place that my great, great grandparents (one set) had settled. My great, great grandfather was an expert carpenter, likely apprenticed as a fishing boat builder on the Isle of Jersey and the Gaspè Peninsula. He had also learned blacksmithing from his father. Though the farm was wasting away in my time, the craftsmanship still displayed there and in another of his houses in which I lived later was evident everywhere. I shall always remember the great three-story cattle and hay barn with its mortised and tendoned beams extending overhead.

The farm’s buildings and their arrangement was remindful of those we saw later in France, but there were differences. In old Europe, several houses, providing homes for extended families, and other buildings were often attached, clustered around a courtyard. My extended family was large, but scattered in the country around. Still, there were hints of previous times, treasured ways of life that only slowly changed. I have been long fascinated in exploring these roots and how it happened they withered. A few months ago, I was reading one of Noam Chomsky’s essays on anarchism. There, he referred to historian Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During The English Revolution. This opened flood gates of insights as to what occurred that has left us in these straits and how we might get back.

Until the horse collar was invented in the tenth century, all heavy farming relied on oxen. At the heart of this style was a great moldboard plow pulled by up to twenty, more often eight, oxen. The forest soils of Northern Europe had been deep and mucky, impenetrable by slave-drawn Roman plows. While these great plows contended well with such soils, they were expensive to operate and maintain both in manpower and care of the animals through the cold winters. Unlike Southeast Asian water buffalo, which could be let out to wander and graze during off seasons, oxen had to be sheltered and fed hay in the winters. So, the gathering of hay was a major farmer occupation and hay fields were vital. Not only were oxen expensive to maintain, but they provided much more power than needed by individual farmers. Thus, farm villages tended to coalesce around ox teams. As Marlene’s and my ancestors moved west with the frontier, oxen continued to be the rule, though with only two to four per hitch – horse harness was much too expensive.

Curiously, after observing a competition over ten years, recent calculations have found a team of horses to be energetically efficient as a tractor – and they give birth to their replacements. The tractor grazed on biodiesel produced from sunflowers and soy grown on the farm. Because they utilize grass far more efficiently than horses and don’t require expensive hitches, a team of oxen seems likely to perform even better. Oxen can also be selected from steers produced by milk herds for free. Capital would make little money selling farm implements, should farmers get smart – so it won’t happen – yet. Indeed, if tillage and grain farming are superseded, as is being proposed and sometimes practiced, even the oxen may not be needed. Lots of rumination about such topics is occurring.

The traditional structure of these villages was very ancient, very much like those of indigenous agrarian villages in North America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Cattle were domesticated in Anatolia and sustenance agriculture had flowed up the Danube and across to the Rhine and Rhone valleys thousands of years before. However, the climate and deep glacial soils covered with forests were inappropriate for intensive agriculture as practiced further south and east, wheat wasn’t hardy, and cities of any size were rare, mostly trading posts. Only with the arrival of the great plow sometime in late Dark Ages or early Medieval times did that change.

Roman agriculture practices largely relied on walled fields tended by slaves, no oxen necessary, under the oversight of owners. At the beginning of the fifth century, the Western Roman Empire suddenly – oh, it took a few years – collapsed, the largely German slaves found they were free, and German tribes to the north and northeast poured across. German village culture spread throughout. Sustainability was the rule. Their agricultural practices needed  to be no more sophisticated than necessary to provide enough for their own food and material for their own clothing and building. As has been observed in other indigenous cultures, this left a lot of free time other than during planting and harvesting. They were assisted by a variety of ancient technologies: blacksmith, tanner, cobbler, weaver, potter, butcher, miller, woodworker, small merchants. Those later who were dedicated to assuring that servants earned their bread crumbs thought of these peasants and artisans as lazy, worthless, ignorant – unlike the Lords who labored so arduously displaying their wealth and, if left to themselves, would have starved.

Toward the last of the eighth century, the not-so-dark ages began to end when Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the Pope. In payment, he declared everyone must be a Christian on pain of some terrible form of death and established ruling bishops in all the now-growing major cities. Feudalism had arrived. In order to support his lifestyle, he instituted taxes and distributed “his” lands to various lords who were responsible for milking the villages on his behalf. Supposedly, the villages were paying for services. In fact, these were “protection” services as the Mafia has defined the term – you pay and we will protect you from ourselves. These manor lords, prototype landlords, continued to divide up the land in smaller and smaller regions to satisfy their progeny and faithful ass kissers. As noxious as this was to the villagers, they were mostly left alone to manage their lives – after paying protection money, tithing to the bishop, and genuflecting on the sabbath.

As Americans, what subsequently happened in England is fundamental to understand our history. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, English agriculture was still almost entirely in the hands of the communal agrarian villages and manufacturing in that of the craft guilds. Plague visitations had emptied many areas, not a few of which were filled with sheep – Continental demand for wool had become interesting. While farm households had individual gardens and livestock (milk cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks, perhaps pigeons, perhaps bees), tillage and crop planting and harvesting were typically shared activities. Surrounding hay and grazing lands were shared as was the nearby forest. As is said, most of the land attached to the village was commons and the residents had “common wealth”. This pattern was to continue, only very slowly evolving, until it has been increasingly replaced by intensive agriculture designed for growing money.

In Germany, Luther was nailing his complaints on a church door and Calvin was beginning to preach predestination. Once the Bible had been opened, however, individuals were reading that Jesus was a poor carpenter who taught the “poor in spirit” that the Kingdom of Heaven was in and about each of us, that we should treat the others as we would be treated even if they are scurrilous drunk and doped-out rejects we bump into on the New York subway in the middle of the night, and that he rebelled against the political and religious authorities, even condemned them. Sin and works impressed him not at all. Whoa, Jesus appears to have been the quintessential anarchist. Within a decade, peasant revolts were being raised in Germany and shortly Anabaptists were challenging there and in the Netherlands. Luther depended upon the princes for support against the Church and saw to it that these dissenters were crushed.

Calvinist Presbyterianism shortly reached Scotland to Queen Mary’s detriment, and in only a few more decades, was flowing under the English border preaching works, sins, and duties. Henry’s Anglicans attempted to hold them off, but by the beginning of the seventeenth century, in their Puritan guise they were beginning to revolutionize English society. The Puritans believed that they were free to make their own religious decisions, which increasingly included political choices. They (following Calvin’s, Luther’s, and St. Augustine’s predestination leads) believed in the so-called protestant ethic of hard work with heavenly rewards reflected in successes in this life, that is accomplishments in accumulating property and money. They declared that freedom was directly related to wealth. Only those males who had sufficient property were permitted to vote in Parliamentary elections.

But, shortly after the beginning of that century, the King James Bible became widely available and people were reading what the German peasants had seen. In 1640, Anglican Church control of printed material failed and the Puritans were too disorganized to reestablish it. Printing presses were cheap and widely available. Radical books and pamphlets flooded England. Religious groups known as Seekers, Baptists, and Quakers and political ones called Levellers and Diggers formed. The first group sought freedom for the human spirit, the second for the human body. In fact, the memberships of each were fluid and many could describe themselves as all the above. Hill warns that what these names intended then needn’t be related to their usages today: the radicals’ concerns were primarily with the well-being of the common people living in this world, not in being “saved” for the next; their “betters” wanted they focus on cheaply working hard for long hours in this one while awaiting their rewards in the next.

In mid century, a group of peasants known as the Digger movement attempted to occupy unused land and reestablish a peasant village. They were quickly suppressed. Quaker Gerrard Winstanley was founder of the movement. In his pamphlet of 1649, ‘Truth Lifting Up Its Head Above Scandals”, Winstanley laid down what later became basic principles among anarchists: “that power corrupts; that property is incompatible with freedom; that authority and property are between them the begetters of crime; and that only in a  society without rulers, where work and its products are shared, can men be free and happy, acting not according to laws imposed from above but according to their consciences.” Many other names could be listed here; I point only to John Milton because his writings are readily available. (In the following, I shall note other prominent Quakers, members of the Society of Friends, who have been involved. While I am not a Quaker nor even perfunctorily a member of any religious organization, I do feel the Quakers have much to teach us.)

Meanwhile, reflecting the Netherlands’ successes in trade and promoted by the discovery of rich coal deposits in Newcastle, English traders chose to manufacture locally rather than ship raw materials elsewhere. Soon, wool clothing manufacture, for instance, was happening in factories operating sixteen or more hours a day, seven days a week – maybe with time out for church. Fossil fuel industrialism had been born. Cities exploded and needed food. To answer this and make money, landlords hired land managers to intensify food production. Along the way, these managers typically became wealthy as well.

James I and Charles I were failures as kings. Except in war, kings were expected to support themselves and the county’s bureaucracy from their own lands. Elizabeth, in her various adventures, had traded, and lost, royal lands in exchange for loans. Other of her lands were distributed to favorites. James and Charles continued this until they had insufficient funds to support even a small kingdom. They asked the Parliament for taxes, but it was increasingly filled with Puritans who didn’t want to waste money on kings. In mid-century, this disagreement came to a head and Charles lost his. Feudal landlords, including high church bishops, were invited to go elsewhere and their lands were sold to the highest bidders. After almost nine hundred years, feudalism had ended in England.

In 1660, the Puritans were suppressed, the Anglican great landlords joined by wealthy merchants were in control of Parliament, the protestant ethic had virtual force of law, and Charles II was invited to return as a pet monarch. Meanwhile, Isaac Newton was demonstrating that the entire universe was but a manipulatable machine, a plum for the picking if one was sufficiently clever. All the foundation stones were in place on which modern capitalism was to be constructed. No more radical nonsense was to be permitted on pain of, for instance, having one’s intestines publicly ripped out.

Cooperative agrarian villages, which may have been continuously inhabited for a millennium or much more, were enclosed. That is, the commons were divided up, fenced with hedges or walled, and individually rented for intensive production. The forests were cut and the marshes drained. Many were driven from the land and forced into the cities to become manufacturing laborers or simply homeless wanderers. Those left on the land weren’t much better off.

I could carry this tale on for many pages, as other authors have. Rather, consider those who were driven off their ancestral lands and are wandering about, loath to become manufacturing slaves after tasting agrarian freedom, at least relative freedom. Parliament had a solution: ship the worthless troublemakers off to the Colonies and have them pay their way by selling them on arrival as indentured servants.

With the exception of Quaker Pennsylvania where religious freedom and anarchism flourished for several decades, the Colonies offered hardly any more promise than England – except for the brief period around the Revolutionary War. In short order, one of the founding fathers, John Jay, announced “the people who own the country ought to govern it”. And so it was to be, as Howard Zinn has described in his A People’s History of the United States.

So, as soon as they could, many of those who had been declared rubbish grabbed their families, teams of oxen, tools, and rifles, powder, and ball and headed for the frontier, which was just over the mountains to the west. Here is where Marlene and I have picked up the traces of many of our ancestors breaking ground beginning in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and moving further west as civilization encroached. Then, following the Civil War, the railroads closed the frontier and left no place to run. I’ve gone back further to an ancestor who, 1636, escaped a tiny village in Yorkshire, birthplace of at least his father and grandfather, to arrive in Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was described as a husbandman, i.e. a farmer. Marlene’s and my roots are in those old villages and I can feel it in my bones.

This desecration happened at about the same time in Ireland, but Scotland held off more or less for another century. On the Continent village culture survived much longer, some to this day, but American modernism is burying the few remaining. Now, the English/American way is being exported all over the Earth, together with patented and GMOed seeds, agrichemicals, and heavy petroleum-devouring equipment. Villages are dying, while cities are growing beyond belief and demanding to be fed.

In 1791, English Quaker William Godwin wrote the first edition of his founding anarchist masterpiece, “Political Justice” – the “anarchist” label was added later. The book went through three popular editions and was widely read in the British Isles, on the Continent, and in the new United States. Godwin not only presented the classic anarchist argument that authority is against nature and that social evils exist because men are not free to act according to reason, he also sketches out a decentralized society composed of small autonomous communities. Within these communities democratic political procedures would be dispensed with as far as possible, because, according to Godwin, they encourage a majoritarian tyranny and dilute individual responsibility. Godwin also condemns “accumulated property” as a source of power over others and envisions a loose economic system in which people would give and take according to their needs. “I know of nothing,” Godwin wrote, “worth the living for but usefulness and the service of my fellow-creatures.” Among the other wise sayings he has left us with, he also wrote, “If oppression [of any sort] had been the school of wisdom, the improvement of mankind would have been inestimable, for they have been in that school for many thousand years.” Godwin’s writings were much appreciated by Peter Kropotkin and likely influenced Thoreau. An interesting postscript: Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of Frankenstein and wife of Godwin’s most noteworthy and ardent disciple, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was his daughter. Shelley stated his father-law’s thesis well:

The man
Of virtuous soul commands not, nor obeys:
Power, like a desolating pestilence,
Pollutes whate’er it touches, and obedience,
Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
Makes slaves of men, and, of the human frame,
A mechanised automaton.

In Britain, one of Godwin’s protégés Robert Owen and his followers worked out schemes of equalitarian villages, agricultural and industrial at the same time. After several early attempts failed, a group of 28 weavers and other artisans in Rochdale, England in 1841 set up the society to open their own store selling food items they could not otherwise afford. The worker cooperative they founded, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, was successful and their model was soon widely copied. Cooperative associations were started for creating with their dividends more such villages. This was to become the pattern of many future workers cooperatives around the world including some of those sanctioned by The International Cooperative Association.

Owen’s central teaching was that poverty and crime are unnatural, the result of the early abuse to which the common people are subjected by those in power. Education has been a essential principle of the worker cooperative movement from the beginning.

From its origins much earlier under Franco’s nose in the 1940s, the Mondragon Cooperative System in Spain’s Basque region has taken Owen’s worker cooperative idea far beyond as described in We Build the Road as We Travel: Mondragon, a Cooperative Social System written by Roy Morrison. It has now expanded to include a variety of worker cooperatives ranging from heavy industry to department stores and includes a bank with billions of dollars in assets, a social insurance and health delivery system, a research center, housing, and educational establishments ranging from preschool to postgraduate technical education. Here is a successful model many are watching and beginning to emulate. Still, a central question that Mondragon members must be asking: has it not become too large?