The Next Conservatism: Applying Retroculture

The Next Conservatism, the book Paul Weyrich and I published in 2009, argues that the only way conservatives can win the culture war is through Retroculture: deliberately returning to past ways of thinking and of living. In terms of culture and morals, America from the Victorian age up through the 1950s was a far better place than America is today.

What does that mean in terms of national policy? One place to begin answering that question is environmental policy. Conservatives are not environmentalists. We do not believe the world would be a paradise if mankind could be wiped out. But we are conservationists.

Just as conservatives want to conserve our historic culture, so we also want to conserve our land, our water, and our air. We do not like waste. Nor was over-consumption ever a conservative virtue. We want to pass the physical world around us on to our children and grandchildren in as good or better condition than we received it. That is good stewardship, and good stewardship is a duty to God.

But our conservation goes beyond things. We also want to conserve local life. Local is real, and because conservatism is rooted in reality, not ideology, we prefer the local to globalism. We value the variation in local life that occurs naturally; we find abhorrent the efforts of the federal government to make life in Massachusetts and South Carolina the same.

Because we are good stewards who value local life, we want many of the things we need and buy to be made or grown locally. We therefore support organic farming and sustainable agriculture. Both focus on preserving and restoring our single most important resource, our farmland. If we use that resource up, we all starve.

Unlike environmentalists, our conservation does not stop at the physical level. As cultural conservatives, we are agrarians.

Earlier generations of conservatives, especially in the South, understood that agriculture is a culture, a way of life. They realized that way of life was good for children and families, far better in many ways than city life. In our time, very few people get to enjoy farm life. We want to open that option up to many more people. How? By making the family farm viable again.

The agribusiness types who preach “get big or get out” will say that is impossible. They are wrong. In many parts of our country, we have people who earn good livings and live good lives from successful family farms. Who are they? The Amish.

Our nation, if it wants to eat, needs a new generation of farmers. The next conservatism would create programs to help young people learn farming and acquire farmland. The Amish could help teach them. A country of lots of small farmers, many following sustainable agriculture and organic practices, would enable Americans to keep eating when disasters from genetic engineering wipe out monoculture farms, as they will.

As Paul and I wrote in our book, “The next conservatism should look toward a world where, as Tolkien put it, there is less noise and more green.” If that sounds like something that would appeal to many Bernie Sanders supporters, I hope it does. They, too, are anti-establishment, and if we find we have some things in common, so much the better for repairing the damage establishment policies have done to our country.

For conservatives who want to learn more about how to recover traditional farm life and culture, I recommend¬†Farming magazine, a quarterly. The editor is an Amish friend of mine, David Kline. His beautiful farm in Holmes County, Ohio, shows that traditional family farming can work in today’s world. It provides him a good income, and more importantly, a good life.

18 thoughts on “The Next Conservatism: Applying Retroculture”

  1. The Amish-at least in Ohio augment their farm income by working for the “English” building houses, making furniture etc.
    Not knocking that-they do quality work.
    They run small sawmills too.
    All of us “English” folks could learn much from the Amish.

  2. If small holders are to be encouraged then there must be some effort made to allow them to be competitive with the massive factory farms that prevail.

    The economies of scale and vertical trusts that exist with most agribusinesses mean that they can produce products more cheaply per unit than a small holder can and can even do so at a loss in the near term because the business knows it can make it up over the long term by increasing the price of whatever “value added” products it sells.

    Hence…an agribusiness that grows tomatoes can grow them at a loss because it knows that it will make up the loss on its cans of tomato sauce and bottles of ketchup. Compared with a small holder who simply grows tomatoes who, if the market is glutted with tomatoes by the agribusiness, cannot make up the loss in revenue because he does not have a value-added product and it costs him more per unit to produce tomatoes than those produced by the agribusiness.

    In truth, the ancient Greeks dealt with this problem by rigidly defining how much land could be owned by any entity. This kept the farms a manageable size and prevented the creation of vast latifundia, as they were later called by the Romans. It also prevented them from growing into the kind of economic monstrosities that hold sway today.

    Victor Davis Hanson talks a great deal about these in his book, “The Other Greeks.” Being a farmer himself, he lends some insight to the topic and his other book, “Fields Without Dreams,” also discusses his own experiences as a raisin farmer in California. There is a great deal of insight there. I do not agree with many of VDH’s political stances since he has shown himself to be something of a thoroughgoing neo-con when it comes to foreign policy but his views on agriculture, both historically and today are well worth looking into.

    Others who speak about agriculture and who are worth a read, though I would certainly not endorse all of their prescriptions, would be Gene Logsdon, Wendell Berry, and Joel Salatin. Each comes at the topic of farming from a unique perspective and all promote a return to small holding and have suggestions about how to bring it about in a way that is sustainable and profitable.

    However, to return to my previous point: to effect such a change in a way that makes farming a viable lifestyle for a larger portion of the population you have to change the fundamental economic and legal basis of things. One can argue endlessly about what prescriptive changes are needed but this problem is only going to grow worse, at least in some ways, with the advent of more and more autonomous farm labor solutions. While there will always be a place for humans on a farm, robotics are poised to replace more and more of the “laborers”. The recent development of an apple picking robot is a case in point.

  3. Look, it’s not just the Amish: . This is just one example. There are many- a lot of people make a good living on a small family farm. I read about another one just a few weeks ago- in Canada (yes, with a shorter growing season) on 1.5 acres. They take orders from local restaurants and private individuals, and then grow what the locals want. They do it by hand mostly (no full-size tractors- just a garden walk behind tractor). They make $95k per year, and spend about $50k on hired labor during peak seasons. So they net about $45k per year, and take November-January off.

  4. Absolutely brilliant, jsut like we’ve come to expect from a great thinker like Bill Lind. I would like to see more essays from him laying out his vision of Retroculture.

  5. I like this. But one word of caution – let us not think that adopting the forms of retroculture will magically bring about the return to the society of those forms. Let’s not make retroculture into a cargo cult. Effort and action, constantly applied, are necessarily part of the equation.

  6. The British Cultural Marxist Richard Hoggart argued a similar line against the “massification” of culture saying it “colonized local communities and robbed them of their distinctive features”.

  7. Every time I see an article considering bringing back micro agriculture I just shake my head in despair. The articles must address the real reason for the demise of the farms in the first place. The farms were legislated out of business by rules that placed so much cost on them that it killed any chance of the industry surviving. Until those rules are eliminated the small family farm will never be a viable option. When I was a child I could go to the local market and purchase product made in the local community. When the FDA and Department of Agriculture began developing strict guidelines for food production and distribution the family production ceased and the giant box stores flowed into every community crushing all competition.

  8. For inspiration, I highly recommend the “Polyfaces: A World of Many Choices” documentary about Joel Salatin’s family farm. Salatin’s books are excellent and fun to read. Start with “Folks, this ain’t normal”.

    For anger and/or despair, See what the government food nazis have been up to.

    For how to raise chickens:
    Chickens are the gateway drug to farming. has all sorts of neat stuff.

    Know that if the feds are subsidizing it you probably shouldn’t eat it. Meat raised on pasture, especially red meat, is best. If you want to really blow your mind, look up Zero Carb and the results people are getting. Pretty soon you’ll start to think that federal nutrition guidelines are designed to create business for the medical system.

  9. It’s not just the regulations (though they are certainly a huge contributor) but the economies of scale involved.

    A small holder with a few cows cannot compete with someone who holds vast acreage who can mass produce beef or milk. The small holders lose on price.

    One can induce people to buy based on quality but when the difference in quality is ultimately marginal and the difference in price is not it makes it very difficult to get consumers to part with their hard earned money to purchase.

    But…this is inevitably what happens: as incomes of small holders diminish but operating costs do not, it gets easier and easier to sell the family farm to the agribusinesses and walk away from the poor pay, high risk, and inevitable debt burden that goes with farming. Agribusinesses gobble up these farms for sale and have that much more power to crush neighboring small holders. To maintain family farms and farmers there has to be a recognition that once farms in a certain area grow beyond a given size they become monopolistic by their very nature and squeeze out all other competition. If we are truly interested in maintaining farmers and family farms (which I support since they are one of best hedges against societal dissolution that I can think off) then we have to impose limits on expansion. While there are efficiency gains that can be made by expansion we are losing the know-how and grit that small farms engender in a population. These virtues are not commoditizable and no amount of savings in groceries can easily make up for their loss in the surrounding population.

  10. You conflict with yourself, saying “The articles must address the real reason for the demise of the farms
    in the first place. The farms were legislated out of business by rules
    that placed so much cost on them that it killed any chance of the
    industry surviving.”

    But then say: “the giant box stores flowed into every community crushing all competition.”

    In my view the problem is the monopoly in your latter answer, and not the ‘over legislation’ in your former answer (although that too can be a symptom of monopolies and lobbying).

  11. I think suffocating regulation and monopolistic companies are nicely intertwined and mutually supportive, so it’s not an either/or answer.

    Who has the legal resources, the financial capital, and political influence to successfully navigate all these byzantine regulations? The mega corporations. What’s one of the best ways to maintain their monopoly? Chop off the lower rungs of the ladder so that it remains out of reach of smaller upstarts. What’s the best way to chop off those rungs? Influence the bureaucrats and politicians into enacting more expensive, tedious regulation.

  12. How do you feel – and don’t be too alarmed about the linguistics here – but how do you feel about PROGRESSIVE regulation; where large companies are subject to more regulations, giving the little guys a bit of a free hand. This might also increase outsourcing to within the nation rather than outside the nation.

  13. “Tradition cannot be inherited, and if you want it, you must obtain it by great labour.” – T.S.Eliot / Thankfully, we still have some great thinkers to grease the skids and tradition worthy of emulation.

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