From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer
I am not sure of very much in this crazy old world, but one conviction I hold to firmly: the more people in a society who have the opportunity to own their own homes and a little land, the better the chance for democracy and individual freedom to flourish. So I am aghast at the way the Chinese government is forcing its farmers off their land and into tall apartment buildings that to me are nothing more than giant tombstones in what will become the cemeteries of another civilization. But what made China’s land grab so poignant to me was that at the same time I read about it, and totally by happenstance, I was also reading Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village,” written in the middle 1800s. I had not realized earlier in my education the historical background that prompted the poem. Goldsmith was not sentimentalizing the passage of time as represented by an abandoned village but was writing in outrage because this was the time of the Enclosure Acts when the wealthy oligarchs of England grabbed up the common land, driving off the people who lived there, and bought up the holdings of small farmers too. A little research showed that what England was doing then what China is doing now. More research showed that the same thing happened in Scotland. Read The History of the Highland Clearances by Alexander MacKensie if you want to get really angry. People were burned alive in their homes when they refused to vacate their land. No wonder you can find all those huge castle-like mansions in the English countryside today. The concentration of wealth that built them came from forcibly acquiring a monopoly on the land.
Some Chinese authorities are defending what I will henceforth call the Chinese Clearances by saying that they are only doing what capitalism did in the United States, only faster and more mercifully. Moreover, they say, some of the peasant farmers are glad to get a little money and live in the high-rise mausoleums into which they are being crammed. Yes, some poor American farmers thought that way too— better off to sell out and move to town. Facing a future where The Economy was making sure that no matter how hard they worked, they were not going to get out of debt, then living in town on a nine to five work schedule looked better than farm work from five to nine. But millions of other farmers in America, and I bet in China, stolidly opposed this kind of displacement and still do.
If you are a student of history, you know that land grabs have been endemic in almost every civilization. And when the small farmers lost out, decline inevitably set in. Study the Etruscans in Italy and what happened to their admirable small farm, small business economy when the great Roman Empire was coming to power. Russia in more modern times is a better (or should I say worse) example, more hideously violent than what is going on in China, at least so far. When Stalin didn’t know what else to do with his landless farmers, he just killed them.
I still want to hope that democracy will prevail because I see in America reasons to be hopeful. But with farmland selling at $10,000 an acre and up, it looks to me that welfare capitalism is preventing poor and middle class people from owning land just as effectively as social and military force has done elsewhere.
But let Oliver Goldsmith say it so much better:
“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay;
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade,
A breath can make them as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.”
But who am I to point the finger of blame at anyone? My farm lies on land in Ohio from which the Wyandot Indians were forcibly removed in 1842.