George Scialabba is not an irksome writer. Far from it: his four decades of literary and political criticism are a testament to the moral and imaginative depths made possible by the consistent application of sympathy, charity and patience to difficult ideas and their equally difficult authors. Such intellectual virtues are not, for Scialabba, a substitute for critique, but its precondition. He seeks to articulate a humane socialism as the best available option for our political economy and, moreover, as an avowedly utopian ideal at which to strive as a society and by which to measure the relative justice of our present arrangements. Scialabba, though he never minces words, is rarely given over to rage and never betrays hatred. He writes out of love.
Still, I was irked by something he wrote last year, in the January issue of the Baffler. There Scialabba reviewed the Library of America’s two-volume publication of Wendell Berry’s collected essays. Berry, a Kentuckian farmer and author of novels, poems and essays (and set to turn 87 later this summer), is among the most influential and acclaimed members of a durable but persistently marginal group in our culture: American agrarian writers. Scialabba’s review is an openhanded exposition of Berry’s thought, indwelling the unfamiliar in order to understand and represent the author on his own terms. As ever, though, appreciation does not preclude judgment. Consistent with his evaluation of other winsome, wistful antimodernists—Lasch and Illich, Kolakowski and MacIntyre, Morris and Ruskin—Scialabba’s appraisal of Berry’s agrarian vision may be summarized succinctly: close, but not quite.
In particular, Scialabba respectfully but forcefully rejects what he takes to be Berry’s essentially private, personal and therefore apolitical approach to societal problems. He quotes from one of Berry’s most famous and oft-cited essays, “Think Little”:
For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. A better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little. That implies the necessary change of thinking and feeling, and suggests the necessary work. Thinking Big has led us to the two biggest and cheapest political dodges of our time: plan-making and law-making. The lotus-eaters of this era are in Washington, D.C., Thinking Big. Somebody perceives a problem, and somebody in the government comes up with a plan or a law. The result, mostly, has been the persistence of the problem, and the enlargement and enrichment of the government.
But the discipline of thought is not generalization; it is detail, and it is personal behavior. While the government is “studying” and funding and organizing its Big Thought, nothing is being done. But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem.
To which Scialabba replies tersely: “This is splendid prose. It is disastrous advice.” He goes on to catalogue the ways in which this ethic of “personal responsibility” is, as a proposed strategy for resolving the challenges facing us today, dead on arrival. Ecological catastrophe at the global level demands a global response. Plutocracy at the national level requires a national movement. In short, while mass society may justly elicit in us melancholy or regret for its dehumanizing effects, we’re stuck with it. It’s all we’ve got. We have to Think Big if we want anything to change, indeed if we want there to be a “we” to continue thinking at all.
The lesson: “cultivating our own gardens and learning the virtues we have forgotten will not suffice to save the world.” Scialabba is surely correct about that. But I think he is wrong about Berry, and in a way that opens the door to larger questions. Those questions concern the connection between public justice and private virtue—or, put differently, whether justice is at once a private and a public virtue. Furthermore, they raise an issue facing a variety of factions and social movements across the world today: namely, whether it is possible to live with integrity, not to mention a clean conscience, when the causes in which one believes and for which one advocates are likely to lose.
Scialabba’s way of reading Berry is not uncommon. As with others whose thinking is hard to locate on the political map, we tend to assume that they must be proposing another map. On this view, Berry’s suggestion to Think Little must be a strategy by which to achieve a better world. Accordingly, we see the dichotomy between Thinking Big and Thinking Little as an alternative theory of how change works: not that way, but this way. If only we would implement the requisite theory, understood as a means of effecting social progress, then we would watch the desired outcome come to pass. We’ve just been pulling the wrong levers. Legal, cultural and environmental transformation happens from the bottom up, not the top down.
It is true that Berry is unhappy with the technocratic impulse. He rebuffs the notion that, surveying the globe as if from orbit, we already know what the answers are; that the remaining questions are solely logistical (how to implement the solution?), not substantive; and, thus, that the only thing standing in the way of a flourishing humanity is the minor obstacle of actual human beings, obstinate and backwards as they invariably are. In a 1991 essay titled “Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse,” he identifies at length what he understands to be the problem with top-down solutions:
All the institutions with which I am familiar have adopted the organizational patterns and the quantitative measures of the industrial corporations. Both sides of the ecological debate, perhaps as a consequence, are alarmingly abstract. … But abstraction, of course, is what is wrong. … The abstractions of sustainability can ruin the world just as surely as the abstractions of industrial economics. Local life may be as much endangered by those who would “save the planet” as by those who would “conquer the world.”
He concludes: “In order to make ecological good sense for the planet, you must make ecological good sense locally. You can’t act locally by thinking globally.” What makes sense for Port Royal, Kentucky, may not make sense for Abilene, Texas, much less Manhattan, Nairobi or Beirut. One size does not fit all, and one knows the size that fits only if one knows what one is measuring, up close and in detail.
Berry elaborates on his account of abstraction in the 1977 book The Unsettling of America, writing that, “as a social or economic goal, bigness is totalitarian; it establishes an inevitable tendency toward the one that will be the biggest of all.” As the English novelist, poet and essayist Paul Kingsnorth, a sort of neo-Berryan from across the pond, puts it: “What if big ideas are part of the problem? What if, in fact, the problem is bigness itself?”
The industrial economy is thus the paradigm, for Berry, of technocracy understood as the generic application of Thinking Big from nowhere to anywhere and everywhere. Such “thinking” is nothing of the kind: it is the abdication of thought, which properly takes shape in particular interactions between actual persons and the concrete objects and environments that make their lives possible—“our only world,” as he calls it. Technocracy is “machine thought.” Some presume the solution to the problems of technocracy must be more of the same, only the good variety rather than the bad. Berry demurs: technocracy as such is the errant mode of thinking and acting for which we need an alternative. It cannot save itself. It is what got us into this mess.
That objection, however, is not the heart of Berry’s view as expressed in “Think Little.” Its heart is this: Justice is not bifurcated between public and private, global and local, them and me; justice, like all the virtues, is a form of life and thus an end in itself. Every attempt to divorce these elements one from another, to address one as though it were not of a piece with the others, to reduce ends to mere means—in sum, to achieve a just society without just people—is both wrong on the merits and doomed to failure.
Berry wrote the essay in 1970. It opens with a succession of movements: “First there was Civil Rights, and then there was the War, and now it is the Environment.” As someone who cares about all three causes, he wants their associated movements to succeed, but he is worried. He spies habits of mind that, in his view, destine the movements for burnout and disappointment. One of these is a lack of integration; akin to the pioneering work of ecofeminist Susan Griffin, he argues for a kind of intersectionality avant la lettre, only of causes, not identities. For all the problems being addressed have the same source: “the mentality of greed and exploitation.” Not that discrete organizations or movements can fight everything at once. The danger, rather, is that they work at cross-purposes, addressing symptoms instead of the disease, or, worse, rising up as temporary fads before wilting as the next one takes its place.
Underlying this habit of mind is a second, which is by far the graver threat. We are tempted, Berry observes, to believe that these problems exist “out there” but not here, in my life, where I live. This temptation we must resist root and branch. For “there is no public crisis that is not also private.” He instances “all the Northerners who assumed—until black people attempted to move into their neighborhoods—that racism was a Southern phenomenon.” It turns out that neither the causes nor the consequences of major social problems can be restricted to something called “public” as opposed to “private” life.
Here is the key point: Try as we might, we will not have a racially just society that remains full of racist people, or a peaceable society full of violent people, or an environmentally healthy society full of people who litter, pollute and daily despoil the earth. We must be a certain kind of people to attain certain kinds of virtue, including justice. We cannot have one without the other.
The claim, to be clear, is not about sequence; sometimes policy precedes personal behavior, conditioning individual conduct through nudges, norms and laws. No, Berry’s claim is about the unity of human lives and hence of our common life. It is as much practical as moral. That is why ecology is such a useful metaphor for the inseparable relationship between private life and public advocacy. After outlining his own goals for protest and petition in Frankfurt, Kentucky’s capital, Berry observes that “even the most articulate public protest is not enough,” because “the environmental crisis has its roots in our lives. By the same token, environmental health will also be rooted in our lives.” Politics is not supramundane, a matter reserved for aristocrats or angels. Politics, at least democratic politics, is the ordinary art of negotiating our life together, the goods we share and the evils we suffer alike. And if it is our life, then that includes my life.
What good, though, is a changed life in an unchanged world? It is true that Berry, albeit always an urgent and sometimes an angry writer, does not hitch his prescriptions to the prospects of success. He is something of a hopeful pessimist. And so his “advice,” as Scialabba calls it, though not a strategy for winning, can be described as offering a vision for living with integrity whether or not one wins. Which means, to put the matter more sharply, it is a portrait of how to live without despair when losing is likely. For the likelihood of loss is unbearable only if value—the goodness of a neighborly deed, the beauty of a creek at sunset—arises from consequences, not from things as they are in themselves.
For half a century, Berry’s poetry and prose have bristled with irritation, outrage and indignation. But it has always lacked what Scialabba, I think, wishes he found in it: desperation. The absence of desperation is not, from Berry’s perspective, a failure to recognize the gravity of the situation. Nor does he recommend private virtue as a solution. His posture, rather, is a conscious decision rooted at once in a way of apprehending the world—as a gift that precedes and encompasses us, what Marilynne Robinson calls “the givenness of things”—and a corresponding response that accepts one’s place in it. Such a stance of humility and gratitude is not one among other viable options. The world calls it forth in us. Without it, we are lost.
Two brief poems from early in Berry’s career typify this stance in the face of what may rightly be called desperate circumstances. The first is titled “February 2, 1968”:
In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.
The second, “The Mad Farmer’s Love Song,” comes just a few years later:
O when the world’s at peace
and every man is free
then I will go down unto my love.
O and I may go down
several times before that.
The poems that surround these are studded with grief, lament and as much solidarity with the wretched of the earth as Berry can muster on the page. (One bitter poem from the same collection as “February 2, 1968” contains these lines: “The morning’s news drives sleep out of the head / at night. Uselessness and horror hold the eyes / open to the dark.” The poet moans: “I am sickened by complicity in my race.”) Nevertheless, in spite of the evils he knows to be afoot in the world—in open rebellion against them—Berry will keep sowing clover in the dark, will go down to his love even before freedom and peace dawn a new day, if they ever do.
It is this chastened hope, incarnate in one man’s life though the world shows no sign of lending it support, that so many readers find appealing, even beautiful, in Berry’s work. Both his life and his work exemplify the prudence of what Stanley Hauerwas calls “living out of control.” For if virtue, pleasure or happiness in the lives of conscientious individuals depended on confidence that the world is going to be okay, that we will make history turn out right, then the only rational response would be anguish and desolation, even suicide. For that kind of confidence is beyond our ken; the kind of power necessary to underwrite it, corrupt and corrupting. Such a standard for living a decent life is for some other creatures than we in some other world than ours.
To recognize these limits, to acknowledge that nothing will suffice to save us from them—that we await, much less strain to build, a deus ex machina in vain—is not, for Berry, an abandonment of politics. It is politics’ founding premise, leavening it with mercy and relieving it of an unbearable burden. Because attention is a condition for the discipline of thought, thinking small means, among other things, paying attention to what is right in front of you. You have more to do than that, but not less.
I cannot say with confidence whether Scialabba’s dissatisfaction with Berry stems wholly from misunderstanding or whether it rests on principle. If the latter, is it Scialabba’s Marxism that finally must dissent from Berry’s localism? Or is it a matter of faith—Berry’s straitened Christianity and Scialabba’s rejection of it? As Scialabba writes,
I’m sorry that Berry insists on giving the agrarian ethos a religious framework and on situating human flourishing within a “Great Economy,” by which he means not Gaia but the “Kingdom of God.” As a result, he speaks less persuasively than he might to those of us who feel that our civilization has somehow gone wrong, and that at least some part of traditional wisdom is indeed wisdom, but who cannot believe that this universe is the work of the Christian God, or of any God.
Scialabba counsels instead “a pious paganism,” rooted in reason and science but skeptical of all (as it were, postlapsarian) claims for progress, including those by science. Whereas if Christian teaching, or perhaps traditional religion in general, is necessary for the recovery of earth’s stewardship and the preservation of an inhabitable world, “then we may be lost. One cannot believe at will.”
On the one hand, that seems an unnecessarily gloomy conclusion. Most of the world is “religious” in one way or another, and a majority belong to one of the Abrahamic traditions. Moreover, there is no reason to suppose an inexorable historical tendency toward disenchantment. We Westerners are in the middle of that particular plotline, and unless we arrogantly imagine ourselves either at the summit of cultural evolution or at history’s end, we do not know what lies ahead. The assumption that progress means secularism is itself one of those beliefs it is reasonable to doubt.
On the other hand, bracket the question of religion, and consider whether Berry’s views, rightly understood, are acceptable on Scialabba’s own terms. Though his writing over the years shows some notable ambivalence here, it seems to me that Scialabba—or at least a person of Scialabban bent—has good grounds to rescind the rejection of Berry’s “advice.”
The ambivalence makes itself felt in Scialabba’s long-standing appreciation of Richard Rorty’s pragmatism. The appreciation is epistemic but also political. Rorty repudiates the perennial desire to fuse the private and the public in, or by means of, a shared human essence or transcendent aim. Political order creates the conditions for private meaning-making; it does not offer that meaning itself, since its contingency rules out the possibility of being all things to all people. Such a strict demarcation between liberal norms in public life and autonomously chosen values in private life may be liberating: the health of a society no longer tied to its search for, much less its discovery of, The Truth.
The risk, though, is a politics devoid of truth in any sense. In one essay, for example, Scialabba affirms the “pragmatist’s answer” that truth is nothing more or less than “enduring consensus.” Elsewhere, he states his agreement “with Lenin, Trotsky, Koltzov, and Cockburn that truth is whatever serves the revolution.” Though he allows they were wrong in practice, they “were right in principle: the liberation of humanity is certainly worth lying and murdering for, if these can be shown (though I doubt they can) to be the best way of achieving it.” Such revolutionary utilitarianism is, to put it mildly, a far cry from Berry’s ethic of private and public virtue. For Berry, better to die a martyr for truth than lie that good may come.
I doubt, however, that this hypothetical reduction of epistemology to social justice represents Scialabba’s considered position. In a review of Jonathan Haidt’s work, he argues against a purely instrumental view of belief in notions like the “will of God” or “the infallibility of scripture”—whether or not we want them to be true, whether or not they might lead to a more just world. Why? Because, he says, they are false: “We can’t accept these illusions, and we can’t ask others to accept them—even if it will make them better behaved—though of course we must live with, and compromise with, people who think otherwise.” In political terms this means it is imperative to “devise ways of promoting stability and solidarity that don’t rely on illusions.” Politics, in a word, must be rooted in truth, even as solidarity entails a presumption against “top-down planning,” since “top-down anything is undemocratic.”
Surely we are in hailing distance of Port Royal, Kentucky (or, for that matter, Port William, the setting of Berry’s fiction). But the best place to see the possibility of rapprochement between Berry and Scialabba is in a 1985 essay on the mid-century Italian writer Nicola Chiaromonte. A recovering Marxist, Chiaromonte was disillusioned by the events between and during the world wars. He saw that the gospel of utopia proclaimed by the communists was false, because “perfectibility is the premise of utopianism,” as Scialabba puts it, and that premise was “empirically disproved by fascism, Stalinism, and mechanized global war.” After quoting an impassioned plea from Chiaromonte to the French students revolting in 1968, a plea that resounds with Berryan themes (counseling “a life … in which each man learns to govern himself first of all and to behave rightly toward others”), Scialabba observes, “This is a skeptical voice, but not a cynical one. … The 20th century hurt Chiaromonte into metaphysics, but not into despair, and still less into callous chauvinism.” Like Camus, Chiaromonte attempted
to derive from art a criticism of politics and an explanation of the apparently inexplicable history of this century. … What this meant was not a retreat from politics into art, but a desire to infuse politics with the values of art: intellectual detachment, emotional honesty, imaginative fullness. That was, and remains, a radical program.
Of another ex-Marxist, Dwight Macdonald, Scialabba once wrote that though Macdonald “despaired of politics,” he “was an exemplary amateur,” for he “sought to apply to our politics and culture the strict critical standards of an honest intellectual craftsman—standards at once deeply conservative and deeply subversive.” That last phrase encapsulates why Scialabba’s detection of a final incompatibility between the ideas of those like himself and those of people like Berry—a group that includes me, at least by distant aspiration—is too quick. What irks, finally, is not that he misreads or fails to sympathize with Berry’s work, but that he misses that Berry is, or can be, a co-belligerent, if not a comrade, in a shared project. Scialabba can see this clearly in the case of former communists “hurt into” disenchantment and exile; he should see it too in Berry.
True, Berry is a certain kind of Christian and a certain kind of conservative, but just for that reason he is also a certain kind of friend to Scialabba’s goals for the world’s improvement. Not all of them, to be sure, but who can find a friend like that? On the contrary: given the overturned table of contemporary politics, it’s catch as catch can. All the more so if Berry’s art, like Chiaromonte’s, like Macdonald’s, avoids a moralistic reduction of politics to personal responsibility, and embodies instead the refusal to separate what belongs together: truth and justice, art and activism, private and public. That refusal was radical in their time, and it remains radical today.