On Agrarianism Contra Populism

weaver_essaysSo a fellow traveler on Facebook asks the question:

How do you define populist? I have noticed you using the term in Facebook and blog posts. I have also heard media personalities use the term but have noticed a difference in how they have used it, how you use it, and my understanding of the word.

Of course, we’ve talked about the lamentable rise of libertarian populism here at Bearing Drift and how toxic the brew has become, while trying to peel away the diamonds amidst the coal — our friends in the liberty movement and Ron Paul movement among them.

One of the books that I am absolutely privileged to have been introduced to was Richard Weaver’s “Southern Essays” — and frankly, I’m astonished that I was not introduced to his line of thought sooner, but am all the better for reading it now.  Agrarianism — the concept of the old Jeffersonian farmer and a defense against the ills of an industrialized society — is a marvelous synthesis of conservatives ethics and libertarian self-sufficiency.  It is what the distributists confess but cannot practically apply, it is what the thinking class believe but the populists can never articulate in all their rage and phobia.

In short, I’m a fan… and I wanted to share my response, and would love your refinements in the comments section below:


Well this is hard to answer on Facebook! But I’ll start by saying there are four concepts that are not mutually exclusive to one another that people often conflate: conservatism, libertarianism, populism, and agrarianism.  I’ll go backwards (and forgive me for brevity and the mistakes it will create on each):

Agrarianism in the tradition of Southern agrarianism is the belief in the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer. It stands contra industrialization in general, is principally rooted in classical liberalism, and recognizes that technology expands exponentially while culture expands incrementally. Agrarianism further recognizes individual initiative while structurally preventing elites from capitalizing on the masses. See the essays of Richard Weaver and “I’ll Take My Stand” for a clearer explanation of this.

Populism can be summarized as “we don’t understand it, so we’re against it, and nothing will change our minds!” Politicians who run to this simply appeal to the people’s ignorance in order to effect political change knowing they will never truly fix the system. It is an appeal to democracy (lowercase-d, the sort the Founders warned against) and mob sentiment. The worse the economy is, the more populists you will find… which makes them primarily a materialist subset.  Bread and circuses were meant for the populists.

Libertarianism — of the hard sort espoused by Ayn Rand — is punching out…  The old saw “a libertarian’s moral compass points toward themselves” is too often true.  There is a sharp distinction to be made, however, from this hard atheistic materialist libertarianism (which is arguably relatively new) and the old classical liberalism that many of our Founders hailed from.  I have a very warm spot for the liberty movement; a very cold shoulder for Randian materialism.

Conservatism is equally a relatively new phenomenon (1950s) in response to anti-communist populism of the McCarthy era.  Buckley’s admonishment of standing athwart history yelling STOP! is just about right… but it is a philosophy that, as we can see today, that has become a solution looking for a problem.  The worst thing that happened to modern conservatives today is that the Soviets went away…

Beyond this?  There be dragons… liberals, progressives, anarchists, social democrats (of which many self-professed liberals are), socialists, and communists.

Most of these are materialist, same as the populists and the libertarians.  Conservatives and agrarians are principally religious in nature (as are distributists — of whom there are precious few). moderates prize stability over all things, and are today found principally in the GOP.

Agrarianism balances out the three above.  There are a good number of people who sympathize with the populist sentiment without sharing their tactics or rhetoric (anti-immigrant, anti-business, anti-free trade, anti-everything).  You can welcome new Americans, support free trade and believe in American strength overseas and still be an agrarian — but certainly not a populist.  The liberty movement finds a natural home in agrarianism… though certainly not the materialist subset of hard L libertarianism… and conservatives naturally find a settling in of a system that rewards meritocracy rather than punishes it, one that treats goods as a means rather than an end.  Above all?  Agrarianism is a predominantly religious culture… or one that respects religious pluralism in a way that populism (which demands rigidity), libertarianism (which seeks to extirpate the public square of religion) and conservatism (which argues one must believe something) ultimately miss.

Short version?   There are a lot of conservative agrarians who hear what libertarian populists have to say, and agree with their ends… but need to be very aggressive in exploring their intended means on how to arrive at their Libertopias.  “Beware the utopians” used to be the watchword for those who desire to “immanentize the eschaton.”   Conservatism and agrarianism, in this sense, are more realist in their views; libertarianism and populism, very much otherwise — again, “we don’t know what we’re for, but we’re against that!” just isn’t a game plan for a just and moral society.