A Cultural Case for Capitalism: Part 7 of 12 — What have the capitalists ever done for Wendell Berry!
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A Cultural Case for Capitalism: Part 7 of 12 — What have the capitalists ever done for Wendell Berry!

[Part 1 is here].

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the ring leader of a little band of first-century Jewish rebels asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” He’s sure the answer is absolutely nothing, but one of the rebels meekly pipes up with “The Aqueduct.” A moment later another rebel squeaks, “And the sanitation.” Then another, “The Roads.”

The ringleader grudgingly grants all of this and then tries to wrench the meeting back on track. “But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads—” Before he can even finish the sentence, others–warming to the brainstorming challenge–begin chiming in: “Irrigation?” “Medicine?” “Education?”

The list could work just as well, and in some instances, more easily, for the British Empire. The scene also works as a metaphor for neo-agrarian essayist Wendell Berry and his relationship to capitalism and the U.S. Tobacco Trust that dominated the cigarette industry at the turn of the previous century.

Picture Berry gathering together a little knot of agrarian Distributist rebels on the back stoop of his Kentucky farm and rousing them with the purely rhetorical question, “What have the capitalists and big tobacco ever done for us?!”

The answer, I would suggest, is quite a bit.

Here’s Berry painting the picture, as he sees it, in a 2012 lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities. The farmer in the story is Berry’s grandfather; the time, 1907:

He came home that evening, as my father later would put it, “without a dime.” After the crop had paid its transportation to market and the commission on its sale, there was nothing left. Thus began my father’s lifelong advocacy, later my brother’s and my own, and now my daughter’s and my son’s, for small farmers and for land-conserving economies.

The economic hardship of my family and of many others, a century ago, was caused by a monopoly, the American Tobacco Company, which had eliminated all competitors and thus was able to reduce as it pleased the prices it paid to farmers. The American Tobacco Company was the work of James B. Duke of Durham, North Carolina, and New York City, who, disregarding any other consideration, followed a capitalist logic to absolute control of his industry and, incidentally, of the economic fate of thousands of families such as my own.

Thus does Berry take a complex economic story and reduce it to melodramatic caricature, with the Tobacco Trust in the role of the cartoon villain. (Keep in mind, Berry isn’t vilifying the Tobacco Trust for selling health-injuring cigarettes to people. Berry’s family was part of that industry. He’s vilifying it for following a profit-driven “capitalist logic” that supposedly brutalized Kentucky farmers.) One could write an entire book on the important things Berry’s description ignores, but we can consider a few key elements briefly.

First, entrepreneur James B. Duke was instrumental in expanding and popularizing the use of the cigarette rolling machine, invented by James Bonsack and first used in the 1880s. Thanks to Duke aggressively expanding this new technology in his pursuit of an affordable smoking product for the common man, tobacco use in the United States increased rapidly in the 1880s and 1890s, allowing for the rapid expansion of U.S. tobacco farming.

Those family farms in Kentucky and elsewhere that jumped into tobacco to take advantage of the boom did so of their own choosing, attracted by the market opportunities generated by the growing national demand for tobacco. But as with many booms, the rush into the industry soon caught up with rising demand.

Then, in the early years of the new century, the federal and state governments began clamping down on cigarette production and sales, encouraged in their efforts by cigar manufacturers threatened by the rise of inexpensive cigarettes.

So, first farmers flooded into tobacco farming to take advantage of the boom, and then the government clamped down on the cigarette industry.

What role did this combination play in the tobacco supply abruptly outstripping demand and lowering the market price? Berry doesn’t appear to consider these factors. He simply blames the Tobacco Trust, ignoring these factors as well the reality that it was precisely Duke, the Tobacco Trust, and their “capitalist logic” of lowering costs to expand markets that raised the demand for tobacco crops in the first place.

Berry might have used his NEH lecture to point out the complex set of factors for the poor price his grandfather got for his tobacco crop in 1907. He might even have mentioned the words “progressivism” and “cronyism,” asking his listeners to consider what role cigar makers played in lobbying Progressive era politicians to protect the cigar market from the upstart and more economical machine-rolled cigarette? But pointing up the negative roles of Progressivism, cronyism and the leviathan state in an NEH lecture funded by the leviathan federal government isn’t something you see very often.

At the time Berry’s grandfather came home empty-handed, he and other Kentucky tobacco farmers might have taken the poor price for their tobacco crop as a signal that there was an oversupply of tobacco in the U.S. market, that the tobacco boom was on hold, and that it was time to focus more of their farming efforts elsewhere.

They might also have reasonably concluded that the dip in demand had been caused by government efforts to ban cigarette sales. Perhaps some did, but the Berry family was among those who responded by blaming the Tobacco Trust and joining efforts to demand “fair” prices for their tobacco.

The result was a Kentucky tobacco farming cartel, the Dark Tobacco District Planter’s Protective Association (DTDPPA). These Kentucky “Night Riders” started by pressuring farmers outside the cartel not to sell to the Tobacco Trust, and eventually resorted to violence. Keep in mind, too, that this violent activism was in defense of the right to be paid an above-market price for a product already suspected of being bad for one’s health.

[Note: This is part of a serialized presentation of my chapter from a forthcoming collection of essays exploring various Christian critiques of capitalism, published by the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics.]

[Part 8 is here.]