Diving Down to Earth

Barn, southern Indiana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

This backwoods alienated seventy-five year old peasant farm boy has never been able to talk to farmers about what he’s learned about why small farms are dying. The explanation gets a little daunting. It pushes people out of their comfort zones. A certain restlessness sets in. No time wasted for a change of subject.

There are quite a few reasons why explaining why small farms are dying has been a problem, and a little poke-around into those reasons may be interesting. What we seem to have here is—so far—a failure to communicate, to use an expression we all understand. To use an expression that conveys the miscommunication that buzzes ceaselessly in our lives.

Since I’ve discovered a well-connected historical dinosaur—not exactly invisible—that’s lived by a multimillennial addiction to its founding diseases (diseases Arnold J. Toynbee diagnosed after a lifelong study of civilization’s family history, including its medical records), I’ve also learned that pointing it out is received with well-conditioned skepticism. Why? Because its history is to be grasped from the bottom up this time, not from the top down. And we’ve been well-trained in top down.

It’s our incapacity to grasp this history, to feel the spiritual weight of our alignment with diseased civilized values, our accrued resistance to the perception, that’s the immediate obstacle, boundary, and barrier. Such history as we’ve learned has been, overwhelmingly, from the top. Bottom up causes intellectual vertigo and an onset of emotional panic. We’re accustomed to the divine right of kings and with the Divine who blesses kingdoms and empires. We’re familiar with the stupendous religious justifications in behalf of the sanctified collusion between church and state. But a peasant perspective?

As people who think civilized, just as we’ve been trained, we have a hard time recognizing the diseases as diseases. Our collective perception has been infected by the diseases even as our folk souls are much older and deeper than the corporate personnel we’ve become. So we tend to reflexively believe it’s my country right or wrong. Capitalism or death. (Though capitalism and death may be more like it.) What Arnold J. Toynbee called the two congenital diseases of civilization—Class and War—are exactly the two powers we most honor and protect. (Is worship too strong a word?) We align ourselves with manly toughness and we’re all in it for the money. Flag and cross and a constantly expanding economy.

To learn history bottom up, to truly feel it, we’ve got to walk our consciousness back (or allow our consciousness to walk us back) into the feeling state of the villages we all somewhere came from, villages left behind but not in our souls forgotten. The village hearth may have been hammered, but its depth of evolutionary impact on our deepest longing is still immeasurably present. We’re only the civilized drip of an immensely deep folk bucket. Civilization has worked hard to plug the leaks.

No matter how civilized we may feel (or think we are) in our everyday economic lives, our folk souls are sick of having to put up with all that crap. Hence our chronic discontent. The discontent is real. But the actual cause of our discontent remains both hidden and venerated. The discontent is regularly and consistently buzzed by agitating agiprop directing us toward assigned enemies. Or commodity cravings. But here, of course, we’re on the verge of sliding down a slippery rabbit hole whose name is Politics.

Well, politics is an increasingly omnipresent quasi-mythic rabbit hole that guides and channels our daily lives. Or at least lubricates our daily temperament and disposition. The mythic diseases we venerate and can’t see are broadcast at high intensity, with advertisements paid by excess revenues of Class and War. Wealth by legal stealth and violence as necessary to keep it that way. Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, buys an electronic buzz game for somewhere near fifty billion dollars. One man. Fifty billion bucks for a political gossip shop. Free speech if you can afford it. If that’s what to call it. Perhaps it’s only another form of a failure to communicate.

To tell farmers why small farms are dying is to explain how the modern industrial outgrowth of Class and War—a more virulent variant than the old king-and-peasant model—made Class and War mandatory for everybody the world over as it made the human culture of agriculture obsolete. Which is to say, to get this picture, to take it in, is to become aware of and begin to recognize the complexity of our cultural and spiritual complicity with these diseases that are both secular and religious. And that can get real scary real fast. The reason it’s scary is the powerful intuition—that is, a felt thing even before it’s fully grasped—of how much of our everyday right here and now identity is locked into the ongoing functioning of this diseased system. To grasp the depth of the culminating crisis we’re in is to realize, however keenly or dimly, the economic and status armor we’re dressed up in and held in by. The lives we’re living.

In other words, to tell the story of why small farms are dying is to tell the story of how civilization got to be both a utopian daydream and dystopian nightmare enabled by enormous wealth accrued and protected by law and, if necessary, violence—by the congenital diseases of Class and War. To get the big picture is also to recognize the bit parts we’re all playing. And there’s your worldwide identity crisis the human race is currently going through. Everybody’s agitated and confused. Everybody’s groping for an understanding and an explanation. The buzz doesn’t quit. It’s 24/7.

This is where the civilized diseases in their . . . maturity? . . . have brought us. Weapons so powerful and toxic that an immense swath of evolutionary lifeforms would be eradicated or toxicologically mutated. So much effluent from our preposterous energy gluttony that the climate of the entire Earth is already going crazy. The civilized male members of a Caucasian branch of an animal species calling itself homo sapiens has led the way. Planetary murder by an industrialized fantasy masturbation of Fear and Greed. Quite an accomplishment. Now the task is to keep the fantasy politically intact. Fox News.

We’re in a worldwide evolutionary identity crisis. Civilization is a Class and War system that’s reached its End Times destination. In past centuries, it could (by forced labor and stolen wealth) build magnificent castles to house royal egos. Industrialize and “democratize” these diseases—every man a king, every home a castle doctrine—and planetary ecology gags on the waste and effluent, proceeding from industrial overshoot to military overkill. Not to mention that we’re on the verge of World War Three.  World War Whatever. A world war of extermination. If End Times is not an apt designation for this situation, this predicament, this incredible spiritual hole we’re in, I’m not sure I want to be around when or where it is.

Waking up is both painful and exhilarating, though pain—at least for a while—tends to dominate one’s attention. But here’s the thing. Most of us have never given up our folk souls. We may have forgotten a whole giant load of what gramma and grampa knew, but we’ve got the tools and disposition to land on our feet, even if the vertigo feels at first like a skydive without parachute.

Paul Gilk lives in the woods of northern Wisconsin. His home is a reconstructed nineteenth-century log cabin, without electricity or running water. He is the author of several books including Green Politics is Eutopian, Nature’s Unruly Mob: Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture, and Picking Fights with the Gods: A Spiritual Psychoanalysis of Civilization’s Superego.