Wendell Berry is a Democrat, pacifist, and critic of organized religion.  Add to this the fact that he is a writer whose work has proved compelling to many conservatives, and he becomes a bit mysterious.  At times Berry himself has seemed somewhat bemused by the cultural conservatives who frequently promote his work.  Once we consider the abysmal impoverishment of American political discourse, however, the riddle of Berry’s popularity among those wishing to conserve community is solved in short order.  In his fiction and essays Berry deals at length with rootedness, local identity, and the heritage of the West—concerns that are eminently proper to conservatism and which have long been abandoned by the establishment right.  If you are more interested in discovering how to rescue your neighborhood from collapse than in overthrowing the Russian government, there is no help or even sympathy to be found in Beltway think tanks.  So why not turn instead to a poet-farmer from rural Kentucky?  When we consider what now passes for a conservative intellectual, anybody who reads real books and knows what a hard day’s work is begins to look pretty good.

For that matter, next to National Review editorials in praise of creative destruction, select passages from Our Only World appear downright counterrevolutionary.  “What excites us,” Berry observes,

is some sort of technological revolution: the fossil fuel revolution, the automotive revolution, the assembly line revolution, the antibiotic revolution, the sexual revolution, the computer revolution, the “green revolution,” the genomic revolution, and so on.  But these revolutions—all with something to sell that people or their government “must” buy—are all mere episodes of the one truly revolutionary revolution perhaps in the history of the human race, the Industrial Revolution, which has proceeded from the beginning with only two purposes: to replace human workers with machines, and to “market” its products, regardless of their usefulness or their effects, at the highest possible profit—and so to concentrate wealth into ever fewer hands.

The modern zeal for revolution reveals neither dynamism nor courage but a restless, juvenile mentality, suggests Berry, a mindset unable or unwilling to reckon the costs of “progress.”  Just to be clear, Berry has never condemned technology per se, and his long-standing collaboration with scientists such as geneticist Wes Jackson and the physicist Vandana Shiva makes accusations of obscurantism seem implausible.  What Berry does condemn is the flagrantly antisocial, irresponsible manner in which the powers unleashed by science have been developed and applied.  Neither manufacturers nor politicians nor novelty-hungry consumers seem to give much thought to how the innovations we adopt change our ability to relate to one another, the world we inhabit, and ourselves.

The decline of what we might call the “culture of work” is another ball that has been dropped by mainstream conservatives and picked up by Berry.  By “reducing the generously qualitative idea of ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ to the merely quantitative integer, ‘a job,’” he notes, “we have degraded almost all work.”  He goes on to observe that

[t]he purpose of education now is to make everybody eligible for “a job.”  A primary function of politics is “job creation.”  Persons deprived of work that they have loved and enjoyed and performed with pride are to consider their loss well-remedied by some form of “welfare” or “another job.”  The idea of vocation attaches to work a cluster of other ideas, including devotion, skill, pride, pleasure, the good stewardship of means and materials.  We are back to intangibles of economic value.  When they are subtracted, what remains is “a job,” always implying that work is something good only to escape: “Thank God it’s Friday.”  “A job” pretty much equals bad work, which can be performed as well or better by a machine.

Berry’s argument is not at all the same as the one made by most advocates of liberal-arts education.  Berry does not criticize the utilitarian model of education based on the assumption that an academic education is the only kind worth having.  He believes that society has gone wrong when honest trades are scorned.  A well-paying job entailing as little personal investment as possible is suitable only for a drone; a man needs a vocation, an identity.

Although Berry has always avoided the label neo-Confederate, he would surely not relish “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” any more than do Southern partisans.  Unlike most other left-leaning critics of American empire, he is honest enough to trace the taste for total war back to its source, Mr. Lincoln’s crusade:

We congratulate ourselves perpetually upon our Civil War by which the slaves were, in a manner of speaking, “freed.”  We forget, if we have ever learned, that the same army that “freed the slaves” established for us the “right” of military violence against a civilian population, and then acted upon that “right” by a war of extermination against the native people of the West.  Nobody who knows our history, from the “Indian wars” to our contemporary foreign wars of “homeland defense,” should find anything unusual in the massacre of civilians and their children.

Either it is right to wage war on civilians, or it isn’t.  If it is, Americans need to drop all the sanctimonious rhetoric about terrorism and putting an end to evil.  If it isn’t, Americans need to rethink their national mythology.

Having given an idea of what many Chronicles readers will find attractive in Berry’s thought, it would be most misleading for me to pass over “Caught in the Middle,” an essay so named because in it Berry purports to achieve the ideal mean between extremes of right and left.  This unfortunate piece is mostly a reformulation of a 2013 speech Berry delivered at Georgetown College; for all his eloquence, it is painfully obvious that Berry’s foremost priority in this instance is to place himself squarely on the politically correct side of history vis-à-vis abortion and homosexuality.  With Democratic Party orthodoxy at stake, the decisiveness he exhibits regarding mountaintop removal and agribusiness suddenly evaporates into a marvelously impenetrable cloud of doubt.  Laws forbidding abortion except to save the mother’s life might make sense, he muses, except that they would raise an insurmountable question: “[B]ut what would we mean by ‘the mother’s life’?”  Even prohibiting abortion during the third trimester is objectionable, he continues, since an ordinance to that effect “would require a lot of official watching.  And who is to say exactly when the third trimester begins?”  His remarks about gay marriage are no more edifying.  Whether his conservative enthusiasts acknowledge it or not, Berry’s de facto endorsement of the pro-choice and LGBT movements represents a failure of catastrophic proportions.  After much sound and fury, Kentucky “localism” begins to look like Berkeley sensibilities plus artisanal cornbread.

At the same time, it would be ungrateful and foolish to deny the illumination that has for years been provided by the commentary of Henry County’s most famous son.  And, come to think of it, perhaps even Berry’s disappointing concession to the Sexual Revolution might prove beneficial and instructive in the long run, as it teaches us not to invest too much hope in men of the left, no matter how scholarly, well meaning, and gifted.  If the increasing dysfunction of the 21st-century West is a result of an overindulgence in some of the very ideals Wendell Berry cherishes—equality, tolerance, democracy—then there is a limit to how useful the man’s diagnoses can be.

Let angst-ridden conservatives who wish to think outside the establishment’s box remember that they always have the option of turning to the right rather than to the left.  Only through exposure to genuine right-wing thought is it possible to pose a full and proper critique of a liberal system wherein the “middle” is perpetually shifting leftward.  Agrarianism did not begin with Berry any more than the papacy began with Pope Francis.  Those who revere Berry as a prophet, a charismatic guru, are only steeping themselves more deeply in the assumptions and prejudices of advanced liberal modernity.  To appreciate his writings rightly, we must recognize them for what they are: An addition to a philosophical tradition that had already grown ancient and voluminous by the time the Twelve Southerners published I’ll Take My Stand.  When put into this context, Our Only World may prove an enlightening supplement to the work of Donald Davidson, Louis de Bonald, and Cato the Elder.


[Our Only World, by Wendell Berry (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint) 196 pp.; $16.95]