Wendell Berry and the Limits of Populism
WENDELL BERRY: LIFE AND WORK, Jason Peters, ed., University Press of Kentucky, 2007
22 Pages Posted: 24 Dec 2007
For decades the Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry has offered wide-ranging comments on how people ought to live on land, particularly in working landscapes dominated by farms and forests. In his diagnosis of contemporary land-use and environmental problems Berry points his finger chiefly at American culture and at institutions that reflect today's prevailing, flawed cultural values. Berry is rightly viewed as the preeminent figure in an important strand of conservation writing increasingly known as agrarianism (defined in a way quite different from the radical, land redistribution meaning that the term once conveyed).
This essay is drawn from the first wide-ranging study of Berry's thought, edited by English professor Jason Peters and recently published by the University Press of Kentucky. It compares Berry's thought with three significant strands of political and cultural criticism - Marxism, civic republicanism, and the economic liberalism known as Jacksonian democracy. Berry's writing features strong similarities with these three bodies of thought yet he deviates significantly from them by rejecting their respective theories of progress. The difficulty with Berry's work is that, while perceptive in his cultural criticism, he has no plausible theory by which beneficial change might take place, particularly in institutions. He sees needs for institutional change yet offers no advice on how it might happen. In that regard, Berry's thinking offers clear parallels with Populist thought in late nineteenth-century America, before the coming of the more narrowly focused, politically successful reform efforts labeled as Progressivism.
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