Agrarianism and country-mindedness

In his fascinating history of agrarianism, Montmarquet (1989) tracks the idea and its many interpretations from the early classical thinkers, through the French physiocrats and Thomas Jefferson, to Wendell Berry in the twentieth century. His book illustrates the point made by rural sociologists that the agrarian concept is both nebulous and malleable, and that it can be used rhetorically for apparently contradictory purposes (Beus and Dunlap 1994; see, for example, Halpin and Martin 1996:21). The seminal definition of agrarianism is provided by Flinn and Johnson, who identify the following five ‘tenets of agrarianism’:

This description encapsulates two important features of agrarianism. First, agrarianism rests on the belief that agricultural pursuits are inherently worthwhile and wholesome. Montmarquet (1989:viii) summarises this as ‘the idea that agriculture and those whose occupation involves agriculture are especially important and valuable elements of society’. Farming pursuits are regarded as conducive to the development of moral behaviour and thinkers such as J. S. Mill and Thomas Jefferson advocated small-scale agriculture for social rather than economic reasons. Mill argued of small-scale peasant agriculture as practised in Europe that ‘no other existing state of agricultural economy has so beneficial effect on the industry, the intelligence, the frugality, and prudence of the population…no existing state, therefore is on the whole so favourable both to their moral and physical welfare’ (Mill 1893:374).

Griswold (1946:667) explains that, for Jefferson, ‘agriculture was not primarily a source of wealth, but of human virtues and traits most congenial to popular self-government. It had a sociological rather than an economic value. This is the dominant note in all his writings on the subject.’

More recently, Wendell Berry (1977:11) linked the demise of small-scale agriculture to the rise of undesirable characteristics of exploitation, waste and fraud, suggesting that modern life had caused a ‘disastrous breach…between our bodies and our souls’. His contrast between the exploitative mind and nurturing is consistent with earlier interpretations of agriculture’s worth, which extends beyond the economic to the moral. As well as promoting virtue, agricultural activity is seen as valuable because it is regarded as the starting point of civilisation—without settlement, art, culture and other pursuits that depend on large groups of people could not have evolved. Settlement allowed for specialisation. Agriculture, as opposed to hunting and gathering, provided the basis for settlement.

The second important characteristic of agrarianism is that it is half of a dichotomy, the other half of which is non-farm life and which on all counts fails to measure up to the morally superior, if economically inferior, status of farming. Flinn and Johnson (1974:194) refer to the agrarian perception that ‘city life is artificial and evil’ and they go on to argue that ‘[w]ithin agrarian belief there is pride, a certain nobility, in what man accomplishes by the sweat of his brow. There is suspicion about a man who makes a living by using his head and not his hands.’

This dualism was evident in Jefferson’s thought. Initially, he hoped that the United States would remain an agrarian society, allowing Europe to house manufacturing activity and cities and their associated social problems. He argued that:

The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. (Cited in Griswold 1946:668)

In the Australian context, Don Aitkin has summed up agrarianism as country-mindedness. The term is of uncertain origin but is traceable to the beginnings of the Country Party in the 1920s. Aitkin’s formulation of the characteristics of Australian agrarianism reflects many of the points just discussed: the wholesome nature of agricultural activity and the contrast between the virtues of farming and the unpleasantness of urban life:

(i) Australia depends on its primary producers for its high standards of living, for only those who produce a physical good add to a country’s wealth.

(ii) Therefore all Australians, from city and country alike, should in their own interest support policies aimed at improving the position of primary industries.

(iii) Farming and grazing, and rural pursuits generally, are virtuous, ennobling and cooperative; they bring out the best in people.

(iv) In contrast, city life is competitive and nasty, as well as parasitical.

(v) The characteristic Australian is a countryman, and the core elements of the national character come from the struggles of country people to tame their environment and make it productive. City people are much the same the world over.

(vi) For all these reasons, and others like defence, people should be encouraged to settle in the country, not in the city.

(viii) But power resides in the city, where politics is trapped in a sterile debate about classes. There has to be a separate political party for country people to articulate the true voice of the nation. (Aitkin 1985:35)

Point five is of particular note given the highly urbanised nature of Australian society and it is also important in the context of the influence of agrarian ideology on Australian culture. Stehlik et al. (1996) describe the notion that Australians are

essentially rural creatures transplanted against our will in urban metropolises around the eastern seaboard of the continent. To many of us ‘the bush’ evokes a natural, pristine essentially good place which may be less than the city we live in, but somehow it is still morally our national conscience. We respond emotionally to the ideology of the pioneering spirit, the challenge against the unknown, the concept of ‘the rural’.

Popular culture in Australia draws on this type of rural imagery with television programs such as A Country Practice, McLeod’s Daughters and Blue Heelers drawing on the rural myth with their portrayals of rugged individuals with hearts of gold facing hardship with stoicism and good humour. Many of these shows include cynical city types won over by the simplicity and basic goodness of rural living. Australian athletes have been dressed in Driza-Bones and Akubras for Olympic opening ceremonies and the Sydney 2000 Olympics drew on rural iconography in its welcome to the world. As Finkelstein and Bourke (2001:46) point out, advertising also draws on the rural–urban contrast, reinforcing this image as ‘an enduring and successful element in the formation of Australian culture and identity’.

The rural myth is further strengthened by its links to the other great source of Australian identity: the ANZAC legend. Although it is debatable how accurate the sentiment is, there is a perception that Australia’s diggers in World War I came disproportionately from the ‘bush’ (Botterill 2006:25–6). Farm groups occasionally exploit this link between the bush and the ANZAC legend—the most recent example of which is in a media release by the National Farmers Federation (NFF). Drought-affected farmers in Australia were offered free holidays in New Zealand by the Federated Farmers of New Zealand and the airline Jetstar donated 100 free air tickets to facilitate farmers taking up the offer. When it appeared that farmers might lose their drought-related welfare payments while on their free holiday, the NFF lobbied the government to change the rules. The government complied and the NFF put out a media release announcing the change, including the following statement: ‘When times are tough farm communities stick together, and we appreciate our NZ counterparts’ understanding and outstanding generosity very much. It is one of the best examples of the ANZAC tradition…digging in and giving each other a hand when it’s needed most’ (National Farmers Federation 2007).