“Uncovering a Common Wealth”
A Review of
Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth.
by Wendell Berry
Reviewed by Joe Bowling.
Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth.
Paperback: Counterpoint Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
To paraphrase from memory something I believe Norman Wirzba once wrote, “For a growing number of us, reading Wendell Berry is perhaps the most important thing that we do.” For quite some time now, I have believed this statement to be true. If you are reading this review and have not yet read from Wendell Berry’s works, please allow me to play a small role in helping to change your life for the better. If you are reading this review and are familiar with Wendell’s poetry, novels, or non-fiction, you are almost undoubtedly nodding in agreement.
Providing a review for something that Wendell Berry has written is a difficult task. There is little chance of either providing a meaningful critique or of helping to better communicate his ideas. Few authors write with such clarity, economy and imagination. Each of Berry’s ideas is part of a comprehensive whole, a finely-attended garden if you will, which he has cultivated, and — as he would likely say — has been cultivated in him, for many decades.
What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth is a collection of essays Berry has written over the last 25 years bolstered by the inclusion of a few new essays written in the shadow of the recent economic collapse. The new essays are grouped together in the first part of the book and include “Money Versus Goods” and “Faustian Economics” and these new essays have much to say to those who are searching for a sustainable way forward. As a note to those unfamiliar with Wendell Berry, please do not pass on this book (or others from Berry) out of an expectation that this is a dry, academic, economic text laden with statistics or inaccessible theory. Nothing could be further from the truth.
That a poet and farmer might be one of the most clear thinking and best “economists” of our time, might come as a surprise to many. It should be, perhaps, less of a revelation to those who are familiar with the stories and histories of prophetic voices and have a certain faith in the “upside down Kingdom of God”. For those with or without that background, Herman Daly’s excellent foreword helps us see that Berry’s understanding of economics is much closer to the original word origin than what has been more recently claimed as the exclusive ground of professional experts.
Berry wastes little time in laying out his plain speaking, grounded, economic view. As the first sentence in the first essay “Money Versus Goods” makes clear, “My economic point of view is from ground-level”. As Berry articulates throughout, all other points of view claiming to be otherwise (i.e. objective, global, expert, etc.) should be regarded with extreme skepticism. Despite the rapid technological change all around us and the many voices exuberantly telling us “what matters”, Berry reminds us that we cannot avoid, escape, detach, or any longer conceal the economic reality that we live from nature and the land. And that if nature and the land is depleted, we as people are depleted, and we can no longer live.
Berry argues that the primary value in an authentic economy of any size should be the capacity of the natural and cultural systems to be renewed. In every context, city or country, cultural resources such as accurate local memory, practical arts, and continuous maintenance must be employed along with economic virtues such as honesty, care, thrift and good work for the ongoing replenishment of people and places. Sustainability, and a renewed commonwealth, are dependent upon these values and virtues.
As Berry explains in the book’s excellent final essay entitled “The Total Economy”, the current “environmental crisis” is happening because the household economy is in conflict at almost every point with the household of nature. In order to restore a measure of economic responsibility, households and small local economies must recover a measure of their own economic production combined with practices that renew and not deplete nature, soil, and people. Continued over-dependence upon large corporations or government to develop big solutions to admittedly wide and deep problems is not sustainable.
Recovering and renewing local and household economies that are skillfully and artfully well-adapted to a diversity of local places, giving priority to nature and land use, is a favorite theme of Berry’s. Not only is this the only way to achieve real sustainability, but in so doing, local cultures are enriched and we discover what matters and what it means to be human. Previously published essays re-collected here such as “What Are People For?” or “Economy and Pleasure” remind us that our current experience of late capitalism is drastically reductive and does not permit us to fully live and work as human beings created by God. Lest you are tempted to mislabel him, Berry also argues in “The Total Economy” and other places that “free market” capitalism and communism are modern versions of oligarchy. If you’re still hunting for a label, Berry is a self-described agrarian thinker and often cites Jeffersonian principles.
For too long, economics have been the private domain and rarified air of analysts and experts. Refreshingly, Berry helps to re-imagine and ground economics as the daily practices of households and local communities striving to adapt to nature to land and to one another. For those that are about this work, a common wealth is uncovered as we become more fully rooted in what matters. May others of you discover the joys of reading Wendell Berry through this excellent book; and may God bless Wendell Berry for continuing to have his hands at the plough.
Joe Bowling is a member of the Englewood Christian Church community, and a community organizer on the near-eastside of Indianapolis.