Friday, November 12, 2004

Profligate Moral Economy

Thanks to Josh Corey for the pointer to Timothy Burke’s attempt to inaugurate a critique of Thomas Frank. Such a critique will be, I think, a real necessity of progressive cultural and political organization for the foreseeable future, and it’s good to see that some sharp minds out there are taking up the challenge and raising questions about the potentially disastrous implications of Frank’s “populism” for left politics.

While I’m thankful for the direction opened up by Burke’s comments, though, I have some unresolved questions about the invocation of moral economy on which they lean. Specifically, I can see how small-holding Western and Southern-states farmers and surrounding agrarian communities could think their place in the world in terms of an anti-accumulation position historically tied to the small peasant. What I need some help seeing is how, again historically, the radical divergence between this moral-ideological side of their moral economy and the political-economic side of the equation has been so effectively papered over.

This “other side” of the equation becomes somewhat clearer if we actually take a look at the realities of agricultural production in the South, and even more so in the West. Even a cursory examination reveals these modes of life to be structured as anything but small peasant production. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that acreage under cultivation by small-holding individual owners is a rapidly shrinking share of total farmland, the divergence from peasant conditions becomes clear even when we take these small-holdings as representative of the whole. And this becomes clear precisely in the form of those redistributions of accumulation that Burke says provoke such distrust in the terms of a peasant moral economy. Agriculture in the regions we’re talking about here, and especially west of the Mississippi, is simply unthinkable on its current scale without gargantuan Federal inputs. There is farmland in Arizona, for example, where the ratio of Federal dollars – in the form of subsidized irrigation water, hydroelectric power and direct farm commodity price supports – to farm commodity prices runs in the neighborhood of 1 to 1.2. If we talk about low-value graze crops like alfalfa, grown with expensive irrigation water on poorly-drained land, the ratio sometimes sinks below 1 to 1. While not as pronounced in the Southeast, the presence of the TVA and related Federal dredging, dyking, draining, and power generating facilities – most supplying their inputs far below cost to agricultural producers – produces a similar phenomenon. As has been pointed out elsewhere in the wake of the election, were we to conceive of the circulation of Federal tax monies as a balance of payments, the majority of blue states would show payments well above receipts, while for the majority of red states the inverse would hold true. And none of this, of course, is factoring in the non-renewable nature of some of the Federally-subsidized inputs, most particularly the water itself. (Could this perpetual externalizing of costs onto the commons one day become the breaking point between the persistent, peasant-derived “moral economy” and the large scale forms of production it’s increasingly enmeshed in?)

So I’m left wondering how large-scale capital flows, and State intervention in those flows, have been rendered so historically invisible when we’re speaking about “Red-state” rural and small-town life. This isn’t intended as a hostile question to Burke, because I think he might well be on to something, but I think one aspect of the situation we might need to make forcefully clear is the wide divergence between this moral economy as it’s articulated in a mode of cultural life, and the political economy it’s been serving behind its own back, as it were, for almost a full century.


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