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How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm?

Pre-script: Yes, I am aware my writing style makes use of entirely too many parenthetical references. It’s a cheap work-around for what would otherwise be (and probably still is) too many run-on sentences. Gimme a break. This post was written to the following album; perhaps you’ll enjoy it while reading: Hammock, Departure Songs

Here’s a pair of articles that address the same thing through slightly different lenses. See if you can find the common denominators: The truth about extreme global inequality.

The author makes a point that’s worth addressing – the fact that extremes of inequality are not merely evident across the global north/global south or developed/less-developed divides, but they are also present within nation states and even within regions of nation states. Such is the power of a large urban core upon the surrounding land.

The same trend of wealth flowing from a marginal and dispersed rural periphery to an entrenched and powerful cosmopolitan center that we see played out on an international scale also occurs regionally, e.g., wealth flowing out of Africa/Asia/S.America/anywhere ‘post’-colonial toward places like the US/UK/Europe/Japan/anywhere once (still?) an empire is the same process as that which occurs between most cities and their surrounding environs, simply writ much larger.

For an example of both processes overlaid in sequence, which happens often, take the wealth generated in Nigeria’s oil extraction, which flows first to Lagos, where some portion may remain, then eventually to wherever Royal Dutch Shell is (the Netherlands, I presume).

Wealth is usurped from the province to the polity, and this process is all but inevitable once it has begun. A state or regional political structure makes a decision that subjectifies the surrounding countryside in a process analogous to colonial landholding.

Here’s what this process looks like as it has been imposed in other bits of Africa: ‘Quick-fix’ development gives away more than it gets back.

That ‘more’ that’s being given away by the process of development has to go somewhere, and it’s a safe bet that the surplus value will accrue in urban area(s) somewhere, with some of it probably going to grease official wheels so that this process may continue to be publicly declared a win for everyone involved by pro-development mouthpieces. Or for that matter, the educational system, which is part and parcel of this centralization of power and wealth. This is why we should be truly wary of anything that promises great reward with a modest input of effort or sacrifice.

As the saying goes, if it’s too good to be true, it likely is (suburbs, anyone?). Selling off land and other widely accessible and empowering assets for some cash benefit seems reasonable from the levels of abstraction common to speculative trading, but unfortunately the personal and local harm in this process is never quite so abstract. What good does cash do for a now landless community? Not much. In fact, it all but imprisons them in their new role as a consumer of services offered and promulgated by the local urban core, and promoted by the globally unified urban core. Like as not, they will find themselves becoming aware of needs they never knew they had, and flush (temporarily, that is) with the cash to purchase them.

Over the long run, what is likely to happen is that the landless will find their monies dwindling, and be forced to work agricultural or resource extraction labor jobs (though there isn’t much difference there, with the way agriculture is done these days) on land formerly held in common trust. That is, until such time as development’s further introduction of costly labor-saving techniques puts them out of work. Then they will be forced to find their way to a city in order to work basic service jobs in support of consumers above them in the pyramid, and voilá! the city grows, with these newcomers now needing housing, transportation, clothing, entertainment and food.

01-periphery_to_core

In a neoliberal system, this is the ideal outcome – the transactions of ‘development’ create new consumers (read: dependents) and creates access to more raw materials to serve the newfound needs of these dependents, with successively larger portions at each point of sale available to be skimmed off the top into the coffers of the urban core’s elite cabal.

Madness!

And what ensues is nothing but – as folks are circumstantially removed from their communities of people, place and the process of living, cultural values disintegrate and the resultant untetheredness manifests in the problems we see present in urban society.

Eric Hoffer said something to the effect that the successes of the scientist and technologist set the stage and pulled the curtain on the psychologist and policeman. He worried that an affluent society had no real recourse to stability, because it was untethered from a cyclical scarcity and its attendant responsibilities that had provided social structure over the millennia, and so was in evolutionarily uncharted waters. And I’d further posit (among many others) that the geographical interchangeability of urban living and consumption (though really, what’s the difference? The one is defined by process of the other) provides one more level of psychic instability by turning everywhere into nowhere particular, removing the need to learn and adjust to each locale’s ins and outs.

... and no matter who you are, there are always these guys.

… and no matter who you are, there are always these guys.

Such a process of acculturation has (had?) a way of creating and maintaining stable individual and community identities, and in its absence, we run aground upon each other in our having been set adrift. Hence, the psychologist (if you have money) or the policeman (if you don’t).

Urban environments, no matter where or when, reflect a very real measure of affluence. That is, to allow one to live and work* in a city context, there must exist a certain surplus of goods that has been and is presently available to the urbanite and all his/her compatriots. Those skyscrapers didn’t build themselves, those buses didn’t spontaneously bolt on their own wheels, and the office cafeteria doesn’t magically regenerate jello salads after midnight. Each, in its existence and continued functioning, represents a significant repository of capital and labor both, and that comes from somewhere. That somewhere is the surrounding countryside (in poor nations, and to a somewhat lesser extent, rich ones as well) or the surrounding less- and/or later-urbanized nations (in rich nations).

As Bertrand Russell opined, there are really only two sorts of work: moving matter here and there, or telling others to do same. Since production economies have basically fled** the western liberal democracies (read: urbanized powers), we wind up with most of our population(s) engaged in the latter. This makes good sense, from a purely economic standpoint. So long as there is another populace somewhere that can be made the pyramid’s new floor, this process can continue unabated, and boy does it ever. Hence, ‘growth’ as panacea in neoliberalism.

The second part of Russell’s statement was that the first sort of work is often unpleasant and poorly-rewarded, while the second sort tends to pay well and is much more palatable.  He’s right of course, lest we get carried away with misguided agrarian romanticism, but unfortunately reality cannot allow for everyone to do only the directing – there must exist new bases upon which the pyramid may prey. Those end up being poor(er) people, rural lands, and increasingly, machines, which are not really true bases to the pyramid, as they are generally built by poor people out of stuff removed from rural lands by other poor people.

Or, for those of you 21st century types, out of stuff removed from other, less-useful machines, by even poorer people.

Or, for those of you 21st century types, out of stuff removed from other, less-useful machines, by even poorer people.

Asking someone to internalize this global yet narrow range of alternatives in lieu of a culture developed over millennia in response to the dictates of locality seems a rather new step in human history, no? And yet we plunge ahead, in the untested assumption that only cities can serve as the crucibles of progress and creativity, with the provincial*** relegated to a place of utter irrelevance in decision-making. The result is a lopsided policy structure that affords disproportionate attention to the concerns of relatively affluent urban and suburban-but-urban-minded consumers.

I’m not necessarily arguing against the rational appeal of such a lifestyle, but rather its predominance in political imagination, and thus action. Such a political structure is built upon the oft-unstated notion that agency is to be divvied out primarily to the individual, and that said individual is free to go where they wish, at least as much as the market allows (or is that demands?). I’m all for the sovereignty of individuals, and I fear the alternatives, but in this case there seems to be a collective amnesia about the roots of our existence. Or maybe a willful forgetting of the ecological responsibilities that exist in indissoluble reciprocity with individual rights to agency. There’s even a word for this: anomie (the etymological roots of which prove fascinating. See also: nemesis, numinous).

So long as individuals are free to move from country to city (and resultantly from a more balanced level of production/consumption to almost exlcusively consumption) at calculated will, and cities continue to operate from a position of inflated political (and economic) gravity due to a relatively high density of those individual powerholders, the smart money says move to the city. Then move to the bigger city. Or better yet, the bigger and more/earlier urbanized country (which is really just the global equivalent of a big city)****.

This is a very real problem, because this urban aspirational culture creates an unrealistic goal that is never going to be attainable by all, no matter the rhetoric of rising tides.

As the song from which the title to this post was taken offers:

How ya gonna keep ‘em away from harm, that’s a mystery
They’ll never want to see a rake or plow

And who the heck can parleyvous a cow?
How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm?
After they’ve seen Paree?

Get enough folks to ‘see Paree’ (TV’s great, isn’t it?), and with all of them flexing their agency as rational individual economic actors, you’ll see massive migrations into the city. Or the suburbs (city lite), if they’re wealthy enough to afford the property taxes and the commute.

Huh. So that's what that looks like...

Huh. So that’s what that looks like…

Chicken:egg as to whether one flees to the city or forgets/resents their earthly heritage first, but rest assured that a solid awareness of one’s dependency upon the land is not encouraged by life in the average city. It reflects an even bigger problem: the ignore-ance of the foundations of human existence in decision-making. If people are the sole seats of power/agency, yet people cannot extricate themselves from that pesky need for food, water, space, and other such sundry items, then a politico-economic structure that doesn’t include a responsibility to the realities of the land that offers such things does so at its own great peril.

As Wendell Berry writes:

“…’autonomy’, another illusory condition, suggest[s] that the self can be self-determining and independent without regard for any determining circumstance or any of the obvious dependences. … There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. … Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.” 

It’s a strange world we inhabit when any given person in Dubai, Tokyo, Chicago, Singapore, Berlin, or Sydney is likely to measure up more closely in terms of lifestyle, dress, diet, and consumer choices with someone from the other cities than a typical rural resident of their own nation.

Such is the power of the globally unified cosmopolitan vision. It promotes what could be not unfairly called a monoculture, but in the attractive garb of manifold goods and services, some halfheartedly tweaked to more closely correspond to local preference.

Ooh, they’re selling green tea flavored kitkats now? Well, I wasn’t going to buy some, but I see now how valued my cultural preferences are by Nestlé.

“Ooh, they’re selling green tea flavored kitkats? Well, I wasn’t going to buy some, but now I see how valued my cultural preferences are by Nestlé.” thought no Japanese person, ever.

The pattern of a dispersed populace being made subject to a consolidated urban seat of power tends to occur in a fractal pattern. Because many of its governing functions are subdivided out into the regionalized states, and for that matter even further into counties, the US proves a clear exemplar of the town and country political imbalance.

Each state tends to have one or maybe two large urban centers where resides much of the political, and hence, economic power (or is that whence?), and the tail thus wags the dog in terms of geography (though not population). Don’t believe me? Ask almost anyone from western or upstate New York how they feel about the laws coming out of NYC via Albany (Or non-coastal Washington re: Seattle, or mountain dwellers re: Colorado’s Front Range, or rural Georgia re: Atlanta, or anyone from downstate Illinois re: Chicago, or, or, or…). Might be good to mention ahead of time that you are no fan of the governor/ment and their liberalist agenda of cultural and economic imposition.

Now, I don’t mean to say that there aren’t valid reasons underpinning the rural/urban divide in political sentiments… assuredly, there are. Where I see issue is the very real inequity and imperialism of the relationship there between. When you hear folks whose primary source of news is AM radio decrying the horrible liberal media outlets, my guess is that what they are most upset by is not that some people might happen to actually hold the views espoused.

What they are upset by (and they should be) is that these outlets speak from power. And that power is cosmopolitan. And that power doesn’t much incorporate rural realities. In fact, you wonder sometimes if it even bothers to try. This is surely clear to many country dwellers, and I have a feeling it stings.

And for that matter, why should mainline media (and their supporting consumer goods marketing substructure) make attempts to cater to the needs of a highly dispersed and more self-reliant population (read: less valuable and harder-to-serve target market)? The smart money says they shouldn’t go out of their way to reach the marginal, and generally they don’t, Fox News and its ads for gold and guns notwithstanding*****.

You think he wants opera tickets, takeout, and dry cleaning? That look says, "Take your service industry and shove it." You think he wants opera tickets, takeout, and dry cleaning? That look says
“Take your service industry and shove it.”

So the question that has no place in postmodernism: what then shall we do?

Such a question implies a shared value set, somewhat locally derived, upon which to agree and then act over time. I don’t know that such values can stand up to the pressures of our globally urbanized culture (or that of our best and brightest postmodernist deconstructors, fwiw) as it insinuates itself ever more readily into our lives. But I’ve just spent paragraphs and paragraphs arguing the toxicity of this ersatz culture. So then what?

Given the truth of Russell’s observation, that certain kinds of ‘work’ are surely more pleasant than others, it would seem difficult to willingly steer the ship into less-pleasant waters. True. But run with me to the fields of reality – without such steerage, the ship cannot continue to sail.

So, in ways big and small (but mostly small – they’re all we have the time and energy to really grasp and then actually do), work to re-cognize your own ecological (read: existential) reality, at whatever level of remove from it you may happen to exist presently. No sense trying to start somewhere you’re not. If a chance should open to you to move more into accord with said reality, act on it; to do anything less is to shirk the responsibility of being alive.

It’s worth quoting Berry here at some length. He certainly wouldn’t pretend to have all of the answers to our ills, but he’s surely on more solid ground (ha!) than most:

The so-called identity crisis, for instance, is a disease that seems to have become prevalent after the disconnection of the body and soul and the other piecemealings of the modern period. One’s ‘identity’ is apparently the immaterial part of one’s being… The dividing of this principle from the body and from any particular worldly locality would seem reason enough for a crisis.

Indeed.

As others before me have said, the physical world’s external stuff (and perhaps more importantly, how you relate to it) is really the only proving ground where you can ever access evidence as to what your own psycho-spiritual reality is. Thanks go to Guy Fox for this one, well worth the read: Self help: arbeit macht frei

Berry continues:

Treatment, it might be thought, would logically consist in the restoration of these connections: the lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarksby connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would, in short, find itself in finding its work.

Say what you will, but they might be on to something here...

Say what you will, but they might be on to something here…


  1. * Work having here its contemporary meaning – anything done for recompense, usually monetary (read: the famed ‘service’ sector of western liberal democracies). It seems an unfortunate fact of modernity that this sort of work is often conflated with that which produces utility much closer to the necessities of life. Sure, I’ll entertain arguments that your triple-soy grande latteccino is, in some social spheres, a useful necessity, but mostly just in the sense that I’ll be entertained at your not getting anywhere closer to convincing me of this.
  2. ** And by “fled”, I mean “were automatically shifted elsewhere by the nearly-immutable dictates of a neoliberal economic structure”.
  3. *** By provincial, I mean to include not only the peoples populating a given land area, but also their concerns for the continued usufruct of the land, which entails a very real measure of ecological calculus.
  4. **** Hence the sheer uselessness of the right wing’s bluster about immigration’s deeply harmful (and conceivably stoppable) nature. All that hot air just gets blown away by the winds of economic reality. But, it does help to win elections with nativist (ha! what a misnomer if ever there were one…) voters.
  5. ***** But c’mon, Fox’s demo isn’t really country folk. It’s the paranoid, wherever they may reside. Granted, there is often much overlap, perhaps because the fearful usually locate themselves far away from concentrations of other folks. But who tends to be paranoid? Those with something to lose. Meaning, those with some power. That economic affluence/political influence link is a hard one to get away from.

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8 Responses

  1. Awesome post.

    2 questions:

    1) Despite your hostility to post-modernism, you still use it to critique the extremes of modernism. When it comes to criticizing how neo-liberal ideas have rationalized everything and everyone into factors of production, you focus more on the alienation it produces rather than specific missteps like not pricing in environmental externalities. You seem more worried about the immanent critique than how to bring rationality to bear on the defects of rationality. So you use postmodernism against modernism, but to get totally heretical, when you propose a solution, you seem to go premodern, to say ‘concentrate on what you can affect and that gives your life meaning, and that’s probably going to be interaction at short range’. So it’s kind of an existential communitarian salvo at neo-liberal cosmopolitanism. But on the other hand, you qualify against assuming some kind of sackcloth agrarian utopia. That’s a long-winded run up to ask: what’s post-post-modern if not pre-modernism?

    2) Go with me on this: people prefer consuming to producing, which suits the producers fine because they prefer passive consumers who respond to their cheap, low liability, infinitely reproducible marketing. Producers have produced a lot of stuff that encourages passivity for that reason, but also because they want to maximize the ratio of consumers to producers, which leaves more surplus for the producers. As this process gets more advanced, what you have is a society suffused with gadgets that not only do the work of work for people, but also the work of wanting. Robots take the repetitive work, nobody pays for creative work anymore anyway, and everybody has apps to tell them what they want (and a smartphone to tell them they want the app, and a flat-rate/facebook profile to tell them they want a smartphone, etc.). This looks like it will lead to a situation where want becomes indefinitely large but capacity to consume collapses because nobody works. Question: you’re the God (probably more like Golden Bull) of the church of neo-liberalism who is trying to eliminate as much labour as possible while trying to maximize sales. What’s your end game? What are you going to do when all labour is surplus and is no longer able to consume?

    Oh, and I really dig the music recommendations you and a couple other posters have provided. For anybody considering of including similar recommendations, there’s a market for them, and people actually listen. Thanks.

  2. Something interesting that came up in a discussion I was having today: in a well-functioning neo-lib economic system, there MUST exist a measure of unemployment. Those who are unemployed and hence have no income are generally known to be pretty crappy consumers, all things considered. Bad for business, right? At the micro level, yes, but in the absence of a surplus of those workers who are willing/wishing to work but have no work, bossman loses a very valuable whip to crack when it comes to maximizing the efficiency of squeezing every last drop from existing workers – much, much worse for business than having a small percentage of poor folks classed out of consuming but waiting ever-ready in the wings to scab over a union sore (or better yet, prevent one from every occurring by their mere existence). What’s it cost a business to ignore poor people? Besides, the government and churches were always gonna pick up the tab anyway. Case in point – any time the IMF or the WTO wishes to set up shop somewhere with loans, part of the structural adjustment is to remove any existing polices aimed toward full employment.

    Anyway, I’m not sure that quite addresses Q2, but the point is lateral. A mechanism that reads counterintuitively at one scale but functions brilliantly at a larger one is what will find its way into existence eventually. In this case, I’m not sure the golden bull has if figured out quite yet; we’re still working on making America (and increasingly but haltingly, the world) a classless middle-class society with an invisible upper crust and an equally invisible but highly-productive soggy bottom crust (Because hey, Jesus said it: the poor will always be with us). In the meantime, we’re stuck watching, waiting, wanting until the machines wipe our asses for us. Or maybe the initial premise is incomplete: people prefer consuming to producing, but they love to FEEL like they’ve produced while consuming. Por ejemplo: I buy a lawn mower. And some weed ‘n’ feed. And some sod. And some garden hoses. All straight-up consumption. But I have thus produced a well manicured lawn with the sweat of my brow. And then perhaps I take a moment to enjoy a nice sit on my lush lawn o’ labored-over turf. On balance, I have done almost nothing but consume. The end result, a product that was all but inevitable given the inputs, makes me feel as if I made it happen. To make a short story shorter, the real money is probably in figuring out ways to market the products of the consumption process itself (which, as I indirectly alluded to in the post, is already being done with most work that goes on in modern cities). And while we’re at it, there’s surely some macro-level money to be made in finding ways to hide the awful work done by the really poor and the ungodly extravagance of the really wealthy.

    As for Q1, my only hostility to postmodernism is its frequent inability to offer us a way forward. My experience with postmodern thinkers has been a bit frustrating in that I am shown (too) clearly the negative issues with modernism’s excess, but then any solution(s) proposed thereto are similarly torn apart. Postmodernism is the college kid sitting in his dorm with a bowl of hash and a slew of ideas about how fubared things are, but with absolutely no idea of a way beyond and only a very limited consciousness of his own complicity in all things fucked-up.

    Forthcoming post on class and its consequences, particularly in US. Stay tuned, might take me a few weeks.

  3. “I must now briefly address a different kind of objection to periodisation [of postmodernism], a concern about its possible obliteration of heterogeneity, one most often expressed by the Left. And it is certain that there is a strange quasi-Sartrean irony – a “winner loses” logic which tends to surround any effort to describe a “system,” a totalising dynamic, as these are detected in the movement of contemporary society. What happens is that the more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system or logic – the Foucault of the prisons book is the obvious example – the more powerless the reader comes to feel. Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree he loses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralysed, and the impulses of negation and revolt, not to speak of those of social transformation, are increasingly perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself.”

    – Fredric Jameson

  4. Oh, that’s so typically Jamesonian! He really defined the problematique of how post-modern discourse is subject to the same limitations of fetishized canons, paradigmatic simplifications and reduction of signification to whims of fashion as any other way of seeing the world. People are gonna be chewin’ on that for generations.

    (Ouch. Sorry. Just bit my tongue. :)

  5. Nachlasse, GuyFox: Such explicit descriptions of masturbation constitute NSFW ;)

  6. @Guy – yeah, but I think Jameson is right here. The reason I left that quote in the comments is because it corresponds exactly to what Hazel is talking about – the notion that everything is stuck, etc, and then the way in which we attempt to solve this is by the very destruction of modernity (thereby pushing us further into pomo), and through this the pre-modern solution comes up where we need to “go back” to authentic times – exactly postmodern no?

    @Hazel – w.r.t green tea kit kat; there are always two kinds of localisation of food-substances, one is a genuine utilitarian taste-orientated product in which only consumers of a certain region will be able to enjoy and where they can never sell it anywhere else, such as masala flavoured potato chips in india; and the other is one of branding in which is mostly meant for imports as significations of a retroactively created-culture. this is something that has always fascinated me because masala chips are fucking good, whereas most signification-based imports are not much better than local produce. It is as if this very lack is being created by capital itself. This is an especially significant point – is lack transcendent or immanent? This is too much of a big topic to continue about here, but there is another thread to go on. The very idea of revolution is one construed only through the very failures of expectations, and not when things are bad statically or statistically. In other words, if this very lack is one unable to be overcome, especially when introduced as fantasy, then the very notion of revolution becomes real. this is thereby the “only” chance that one can dream and posit of a revolution, and it’s not as shitty as you make it out to be.

    @Fabius – but the only reason one goes to work is to buy time to masturbate at night

  7. @Nachlasse: Jameson says that PoMo can’t help but reify itself in hegemonic terms as the solution to hegemonic discourses that it criticizes. GuyFox says that Jameson defined the terms of the discussion and will be recited for decades, just like a hegemonic dis… Oh, never mind. (Yes, he’s right. We’ll know the discussion is over and the discourse has become rightly hegemonic when everybody agrees on the solution, which would also ironically be the sign that the entire project will have failed. Once the truth has been spoken, there will be nothing left to say, which is also the case when truth becomes impossible.)

    @Fabius: Porn is in the eye of the beholder. Turned on?

  8. @ GuyFox’s original question #2 – reading something from David Harvey today and the answer hit me like a ton of bricks. The neolib system has already wondered the same thing about what to do when consumer demand shrinks, and the answer is the extension and encouragement of credit. Squeeze workers in the way that’s been done, either by laying some off or demanding more from them for the same recompense, and their ability to consume the increasing array of products decreases. Extend them credit, and not only do they then have the ability to consume again, but they are also further bound into the system and thus less able to act in opposition from a position of independence of outcome. Somebody with a mortgage/student loans/car payment/etc is unlikely to make risky demands of their employer when they and their boss both know that somebody else will happily step into their place should they become too onerous in asking for something better. And the beat goes on…

Got insight?