The "Rural Problem" A Century Ago

The Rural Life Problem of the United States
Sir Horace Plunkett, , 1919 (originally published as a series of articles in Outlook, 1908-9)

horace_plunkett_1923Horace Plunkett was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat. Born at Dunsany Castle, he was the third son of the 16th Baron Dunsany and an uncle of the 18th Baron, the Lord Dunsany who wrote the fantasy classic, The King of Elfland's Daughter. Horace Plunkett became a leading activist for home rule and developed the idea of Irish rural cooperatives.  Plunkett’s thesis in this book, which seems to have influenced a lot of American sociologists and Country Lifers, is that “the city has developed to the neglect of the country,” and that of Theodore Roosevelt’s three pillars of Country Life, “better farming, better business, better living,” the business problems of farmers should be addressed first. (3, 12-13)  Plunkett refers briefly to his experience in rural Ireland and also to Denmark, which has come up so many times in these primary texts that it probably demands some attention.

It's interesting to see what reformers were concerned about a hundred years ago, especially when many of the same issues face us today. Being an aristocrat, Plunkett had access to American leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and James Jerome Hill.  He portrays these men as being genuinely concerned with “The Future of the United States” (title of a 1906 J.J. Hill speech I need to find a copy of), and especially with soil conservation.  Plunkett argues for continuing the strong connection between what he saw as the two key elements of Roosevelt’s administration, conservation and rural life improvement.

During the first phase of the industrial revolution, Plunkett says “economic science stepped in, and, scrupulously obeying its own law of demand and supply, told the then predominant middle classes just what they wished to be told.” (37) “Social and political science,” he says, “rose up in protest against both the economists and the manufacturers,” but were pushed aside in the rush for progress. (39)  Interestingly for an analysis written a hundred years ago, Plunkett introduces the idea of a “world-market,” (40) and says neglect of rural regions is caused in part by the fact that “reciprocity” between city and country “has not ceased; it has actually increased...But it has become national, and even international, rather than local.” (41)  Plunkett notes that “Forty-two per cent of materials used in manufacture in the United States are from the farm, which also contributes seventy per cent of the country’s exports.” (41-2)  But the complexity of new trade patterns and supply chains has hidden the mutual dependence of city and country. Plunkett concludes “until...the obligations of a common citizenship are realized by the town, we cannot hope for any lasting National progress.”  (42)

If there is specific blame to be laid, Plunkett directs it not at the system, but at what he thinks of as profiteers.  “Excessive middle profits between producer and consumer may largely account for the very serious rise in the price of staple articles of food,” he says. But even though urban middlemen are to blame and the problem impoverishes rural people at the same time it aggravates poor city people, Plunkett says “the remedy...lies with the farmer” rather than with legislative action or government reform. (43) I wonder, given the overwhelming market power today of the retail consumer goods sector (which is what his "profiteers" evolved into) whether there really was a chance a hundred years ago that farmers and their customers could have remedied the situation themselves? Or whether this was the big mistake -- the missed opportunity to intervene and change the direction of the last century of agribusiness consolidation?

But the interesting thing is, like the Country Life advocates who followed him, Plunkett's heart seems to be in the right place. Although he doesn’t explain how the system has managed to marginalize them, Plunkett suggests that excluding rural people from the political sphere has damaged democracy.  Farmers’ experience of the cycles of nature, which Plunkett pictures as slower and less mutable than the commercial and industrial processes city people live within, give them a more balanced political sense.  City dwellers’ “one-sided experience” may account for “that disregard of inconvenient facts, and that impatience of the limits of practicability, which many observers note as a characteristic defect of popular government.” (49) Plunkett also suspects farmers might be less amenable to “the cruder forms of Socialism...perhaps because in the country the question of the divorce of the worker from his raw material by capitalism does not arise.” (50-1) Unlike the British, Plunkett believes most American farmers are not alienated from their means of production because most of them are proprietors rather than tenants.  So farmers aren’t victims of capitalism in the same way urban wage-earners are.  (Plunkett avoids any reference to the ethnic immigrant contribution to American life, with the exception of a subtle nod to the success his countrymen have had infiltrating urban politics)

Plunkett tries to call for “a moral corrective to a too rapidly growing material prosperity,” but he fails to identify the motivation for the “reckless sacrifice of agricultural interests by the legislators of the towns.”  (54)  The issue he avoids confronting directly seems to be the increasing unevenness of the prosperity he cites.  Even in rural areas, the rewards are going disproportionately to the few.  And in most cases, profits are captured by the middlemen, at the expense of both rural producers and urban consumers.

Suggesting that even though they have no public voice, farmers “keep a full stock of grievances in their mental stores,” Plunkett warns of “serious unrest in every part of the United States, even in the most prosperous regions.” (61-2)  Compared to urban people, farmers' “material wealth is unnaturally and unnecessarily restricted; their social life is barren; their political influence is relatively small.  American farmers have been used by politicians, but have still to learn how to use them,” he says.  (63) This is at least partly due, Plunkett believes, to the way the west was settled.

Based on his personal observations of the Middle West in the 1880s, Plunkett says “settlers, knowing that the land must rise rapidly in value, almost invariably purchased much larger farms than they could handle...they invented a system of farming unprecedented in its wastefulness.  The farm was treated as a mine,” and soil fertility was turned into corn crops year after year, without fertilizer or rotation. (67) Though averse to blaming government, Plunkett does recognize the “opening up of the vast new territory by the provision of local traffic for transcontinental lines was an object of national urgency and importance...the policy of rewarding railroad enterprises with unconditional grants of vast areas of agricultural land,” he concludes, is “one of the evidences of urban domination over rural affairs.” (69-70)

“Under modern economic conditions, things must be done in a large way if they are to be done profitably,” Plunkett says, “and this necessitates a resort to combination.”  (89) Corporate organizations have three benefits, he says: economies of scale, elimination of “great middlemen who control exchange and distribution,” and political power. (90) For better or worse, he says, “towns have flourished at the expense of the country by the use of these methods, and the countryman must adopt them if he is to get his own again.” (91) But farmers, Plunkett admits, being “the most conservative and individualistic of human beings,” are unlikely to organize themselves in joint stock companies and hand over control to others. (94)

Plunkett’s solution, the farmers’ cooperative, acknowledges the fact that “when farmers combine, it is a combination not of money only, but of personal effort in relation to the entire business.”  (96) While this description is not exactly accurate (by the early twentieth century farmers produced a fairly standardized product, but there are limits to centralization and scale economies relative to say, steel production, so the economic comparison with industry is complicated), Plunkett is trying to emphasize that the “distinction between the capitalistic basis of joint stock organization and the more human character of cooperative system is fundamentally important.” (97) Compared to Ireland, where Plunkett had been instrumental in developing rural cooperatives, “as things are, the [American] farming interest is at a fatal disadvantage in the purchase of agricultural requirements, in the sale of agricultural produce, and in obtaining proper credit facilities.” (114)  Cooperatives could address each of those needs.

The long-term result of “Better Business,” Plunkett says, are Roosevelt's two other priorities, “Better Farming and Better Living.”  Cooperatives would begin a process of renewing rural social bonds, leading to a new neighborhood culture.  Rather than trying to “bring the advantages of the city” to the country, rural communities would “develop in the country the things of the country, the very existence of which seems to have been forgotten.”  “After all,” he says, “it is the world within us rather than the world without us that matters in the making of society,” once the physical necessities like clean water, medicine, and electricity have been made available by attending to “Better Business.” (127)

Plunkett was well aware that his “subject is rural, my audience urban.”  (143)  This may explain why his final chapter de-emphasizes the establishment of business-oriented cooperatives, and focuses instead on education and socialization.  One point he does make is that existing rural organizations, the Grange, and the Farmers’ Union could all be enlisted into the cause of helping establish and support rural coops.  It would be interesting to read further, and see why the Country Life Movement ignored this advice and stuck with a top-down approach, and if that limited its reach and efficacy.