Reconstruction by Way of the Soil

by G.T. Wrench

Chapter 9

Economics of the Soil

The link which connects towns and country in such a matter as the use of town waste is a money link, or cash nexus. Under present values one would be unable to find a municipality that turned its wastes into humus for the good of the soil, but only because, as good for the soil, the farmers bought it. By selling that which once had been waste, it is converted into cash, and this, in present values, is, the good result from the municipal point of view.

Leaflet No. 398, of course, had to accept the dominance of this way of valuing. It wished to persuade the farmers to make use of prepared waste, because thereby the great loss to the land of organic manure, which had resulted from the diminution of stable manure, would be mitigated, if not compensated. It was true that money, in the form of railway costs in particular, prevented farms distant from towns being able to get the manure, but those in their vicinity were urged to its use. As things were, the leaflet found that some 10,000,000 tons of ashpit refuse was produced annually in England and Wales, and that towns were spending £6,000,000 a year on collection and disposal. This was unquestionably waste.

The cash nexus, therefore, overrode more vital reasons. Twelve years after the issue of the leaflet of 1923, Sir George Stapledon gave out the ominous information that sixteen and a half million acres of England and Wales, or 43 per cent of the total of cultivable lands, had fallen into 'a more or less neglected condition'. They were, however, 'capable of radical improvement'. The Earl of Portsmouth, about the same time, summed up another aspect of the same question in these words: 'It is a staggering commentary on our present attitude to health and agriculture that, excluding all accident, all patent medicines and private medical cases, the bill for sickness in this country amounts to £276,000,000 a year, while the farmer receives for his gross output barely £250,000,00O.,

Putting the two together, there was a great deal of wastage of wastes and of land itself. The wastage of land was very great indeed and the more surprising in that it occurred in a country threatened by war on a greater scale than that recently experienced in 1914-18, in which it was nearly brought to its knees by the lack of well-cultivated homeland, a war in which also the blockade of its enemies and their consequent shortage of food was a large factor in their collapse. The need of good soil had been emphasized by world events in such high tones that it would be almost incredible that it was not regarded as a paramount national and popular need, were it not that, for a prolonged period, a thought-barrier had practically and intellectually shut out the people from the soil.

So one of the strangest things happened. In spite of the great danger of the neglect of soil being written large in letters of blood, the people were blind. They were also deaf, for they did not hearken to the warnings of such authorities as Sir George Stapledon, the Earl of Portsmouth, and many other leaders of the countryside. 'It takes two to speak the truth,' said Thoreau. 'One to speak and one to hear.' They were unable to hear.

The barrier was the paramountcy of money, of the cash nexus. As long as that was paramount, the creative power of life and all that pertained to it was inextricably fettered.

Only the rare man could himself escape from the entanglement and see things in their proper proportion. Such a rare man was the late Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West, and his account is so clear that it must here be given in his own words. Spengler's German is very difficult. My quotations are from the two-volumed English translation of his work.

He begins his analysis at the time when civilization was purely agrarian. The life of the population is purely that of the peasant on the open land. The experience of the town has not yet come. All that elevates itself from amongst the villages, castles, palaces, monasteries, temple-closes, is not a city, but a market, a mere meeting place of yeomen's interests, which also acquired, and at once, a certain religious and political meaning, but certainly cannot be said to have any special life of its own. The inhabitants, even though they might be artisans or traders, would still feel as peasants, and even in one way or another work as such.

'That which separates out from a life in which everyone is alike producer and consumer is goods, and traffic in goods is the mark of all early intercourse, whether the object be brought from the far distance or merely shifted about within the limits of the village or even the farm. A piece of goods is that which adheres by some quiet threads of its essence to the life that has produced it or the life that uses it. A peasant drives "his" cow to market, a woman puts away "her" finery in the cupboard. We say a man is endowed with this world's "goods"; the word "possession" takes us back right into the plant-like origin of property, into which this particular being -- no other -- has grown, from the roots up. Exchange in these periods is a process whereby goods pass from one circle of life into another. They are valued with reference to life, according to a sliding-scale of felt relation at the moment. There is neither a conception of value nor a kind or amount of goods that constitutes a general measure -- for gold and coins are goods too, whose rarity and indestructibility cause them to be highly prized.

'Into the rhythm and course of this barter the dealer comes only as an intervener. In the market the acquisitive and creative economics encounter one another, but even at places where fleets and caravans unload, trade only appears as an organ of countryside traffic. It is the "eternal" form of economy, and it is even to-day seen in the immemorially ancient figure of the pedlar of the country districts remote from towns, and in the out-of-the-way suburban lanes where small barter-circles form naturally, and in the private economy of savants, officials, and in general everyone not actively part of the daily economic life of the great city.

'With the soul of the town a quite other kind of life awakens. As soon as the market has become the town, it is no longer a question of mere centres for goods-streams traversing a purely peasant landscape, but of a second world within walls, for which the merely producing life "out there" is nothing but object and means, and out of which another stream begins to circle. The decisive point is this -- the true urban is not a producer in the prime terrene sense. He has not the inward linkage with the soil or with the goods that pass through his hands. He does not live with these, but looks at them from outside and appraises them in relation to his own life-upkeep.

'With this goods become wares, exchange turnover, and in place of thinking in goods we have thinking in money.

'With this a purely extensional something, a form of limit-defining, is abstracted from the visible objects of economics, just as mathematical thought abstracts something from the mechanistically conceived environment. Abstract money corresponds exactly to abstract number. Both are entirely inorganic. The economic picture is reduced exclusively to quantities, whereas the important point about "goods" had been their quality. For the early-period peasant "his" cow is, first of all, just what it is, a unit being, and only secondarily an object of exchange; but for the economic outlook of the true townsman the only thing that exists is an abstract money-value which at the moment happens to be in the shape of a cow that can always be transferred into that of, say, a bank-note. Even so the genuine engineer sees in a famous waterfall not a unique natural spectacle, but just a calculable quantum of unexploited energy.

'It is an error of all modern money-theories that they start from the value token or even the material of the payment-token, instead of from the form of economic thought. In reality money, like number or law, is a category of thought.'

Here is clarity joined with profundity, a feat only to be executed by genius. The initial picture of the agrarian world, in which production primarily from the soil, gives the products a reality because of the quality or life that is within them. They become man's possessions, something near him, placed or sitting by him, and valued with reference to life. But with the soul of the town a quite other kind of life arises, one in which something intervenes between 'goods' and man. The result, in its essence, is contained in the change from creative goods-thinking to abstracted money-thinking, expressed in phrases italicized by Spengler himself: 'With this goods become wares' (things of the warehouse not of the personal home), 'exchange turnover' (not as a mere inter-change of goods for other goods), 'and in place of thinking in goods we have thinking in money', and 'in reality money, like number and law, is a category of thought'.

Let us look closely at this differentiation, particularly in its relation to those 'goods', which are most nearly related to life and without which life could not be, the food-products of the soil. The vegetable food-products are seeds, roots, leaves and fruits, and early men made the observation that when seeds were put in the ground, a plant grew up which produced a greater number of seeds than were put into the ground. These men did not worry about whether or not the production of a great number of seeds from a few revealed a rather gloomy and even brutal design on the part of nature to make the few seeds successful in becoming plants and so proving their superiority to the rest as the fittest to survive in a struggle for existence. They did not regard the few and the many as being due to a rather snobbish, if divine, order of precedence, serving as the explanation of the exuberance of the creative power. They were more simply bound to the facts that these extra seeds, tubers, fruits and foliage provided them with food, and they saw themselves dependent upon the manifold character of re-creation. All they understood was what they saw, namely, the generous outpouring of abundance, in response to their efforts, by a mystical power, which in its working was beyond them, but in its revelation to them aroused their awe, their reverence, their gratitude. So they served nature to the best of their ability, drew their share from the cornucopia of abundance and humbly thanked a God in this revelation of paternal love and superhuman magnanimity.

The abundance, as the result of their labours, enabled the work of a group of families to supply food not only for themselves, but for others. A certain part of their produce was, therefore, set aside for the non-working members of the families, for craftsmen who gave them possessions in return for food, and for the men of government in the form of taxes. So much of their produce had to go to government. They did not pay government for its services in money, but in produce.

Now the great significance of the tax in kind is that it is, of course, completely related to the basis of human life, the soil. The soil yields so much grain. The grain is mixed, spread out and a portion, say a fourth, is taken by an official for government. Taxation, therefore, receives the stability of the soil, and nothing really is so stable in human life as the well-cultivated soil. There is, when products are many in character, a fairly steady average return in response to a traditional agriculture, if that agriculture is not wasteful. There must be some such steady relation of the soil to men, for human life to continue without violent fluctuations. There are, of course, good seasons and bad seasons. There are times of drought, there are times of flood, but a settled and capable form of agriculture does produce prolonged national life.

Payment of taxes in kind is a payment in terms of that which is primary to national life. It is factual and real in a whole national sense. It is terrenely genuine and sufficient, and has no foreign, extraneous and unlimited character, such as life dependent on conquests, on the wreck of weaker nations or, through the agency of money, on the well- or over-fed condition of the few and the underfed condition, or malnutrition, of the many. It, in fact, liberates the soil and keeps it free from money, the one real and essential freedom for a whole national life.

In the old conception the peasants paid the king for national protection. That was the service he rendered to them and for which they returned reciprocal service. That is the doctrine to be found in the classics of the past, such as the Smriti or law-books of ancient India. The land of the country was not the king's property, but the common property of all who work on that land, and enjoy therefrom the fruits of their labour, as Professor Dvijadas Datta insists in Peasant-Proprietorship in India, 1924. Taxes were to protect the living land and the land of the living, and not as they have now become, under the priority of money, for things so anomalous as, for example, the payment of interest on money lent by the privileged class for wars that were fought and decided over a century ago. The peasants did not pay the king to protect the land against enemies, whose dead bodies had for long been dissolved into soil-fertility. They paid for the protection of the land on which they were living and by which their nation was living.

No one can juggle with the soil as acquisitive men have learnt to juggle with money. The soil is reality; it has its own dominant character: it is more powerful than man, for it has that infinite mystery of power to turn death into life, and so not to remain as death. But money is purely man's invention and he can fashion it of what he likes, from the ponderous blocks of iron of the honest Lycurgus to the book-entries of modern bankers or manufacturers of credit. It can take every form of transubstantiation that dominant men choose to put upon it. It permeates everything that they dominate. It is only upon the land that men will ever be able to get free of it. It is only there that they will be able to see clearly what life really is.

And life is something that starts from the health of the soil in a way that, if it is to be successful, the principle of life must direct. Soil, in conservative and whole life, directs and rules money, not money the soil. Soil is the first primary thing and in reconstruction its needs must be provided for apart from the assumption of priority by money.

Money acts rather as a balance, as a subservant to the soil. So it acted at least amongst Indian and other peasantries. That is why it was denoted by metal and why it was recognized as a possession because, being metal, it had durability as the land had durability. It could act as a substitute of the land. When there was scarcity in local soil-products, coins came into existence to make stored food and second-class food available by assisting poor land to be cultivated. When famine threatened or existed, then the silver bangles of Indian women were taken and handed to the sowcar and weighed by him and turned into an equivalent weight of silver coins. So coin became more plentiful at times of distress.

This is the exact opposite of urban banking. When distress threatens, bankers call in their loans. As distress increases, money in circulation becomes less, not more -- more distress less local money, not more distress more local money. In very great distress, according to the sages, it was right for the king not only to forgo the taxes in kind, but to give money, not loan it, in order to lighten the distress by enabling the suffering people to buy food and assistance from outside their locality.

The right economics of the soil do not exist under thinking in terms of money. If the soil is lined up with other productive agents of saleable goods, then its intrinsic character vanishes. It is essentially different to goods manufactured for sale, for it is as much property of life as is the air. Neither soil nor air have market value because they are necessary means of life. There is no market value yet for air, there should not be one for soil. City air, burdened with petrol, is not bad economics but bad life. The soil, that is burdened with money, is not bad economics, but bad life. That is why the right human partnership with the soil is an essential of human life, if it is to endure.

With the right conservation and service, the soil responds with something that is as certainly stable as the human virtue which, through the continuity of family service, provides this protection. It responds with its repetitive, but limited, gifts with a regularity, which is entirely different to the violent fluctuations in national and personal life which have occurred from the output of the precious metals, and owing to which the most profound effects in modern civilization have followed upon the discovery of Potosi silver, Californian gold and improved chemical processes for extracting gold. Nothing, one feels, could be more fantastic than to try to stabilize human life -- and it must be stabilized if catastrophe (or change in the crust of the earth which is one of its dictionary definitions) is to be avoided -- while measures of such inconstancy are permitted to dominate.

Let us now, then, in the midst of our inconstancies and the great catastrophes in which we have our present being, in this our reconstruction review this great virtue of constancy in terms of the creative power of the soil. Here we have for our enlightenment Professor F. H. King's book, Farmers of Forty Centuries.

His introduction of ten pages is one of contrast pictures of the thorough and profound relation of men to the soil in China and its pupillary countries, of the conditions of social constancy that result therefrom, and of the undeveloped relation to the soil of men in the West. He took as a striking example the meticulous care with which water is preserved and used for the land in China. 'To anyone who studies the agricultural methods of the Far East in the field', he wrote, 'it is evident that these people, centuries ago, came to appreciate the value of water in crop production as no other nations have. They have adapted conditions to crops and crops to conditions to such a pitch that in rice they have produced a cereal which permits the most intense fertilization and at the same time ensures the maximum yields against both drought and flood. With the practice of Western nations in all humid climates, no matter how completely and highly we fertilize, in more years than not, yields are reduced by a deficiency or an excess of water.'

He went on to summarize the magnitude of the systems of canalization in China, a conservative estimate of which would place the miles of canals at 200,000. China has as many acres in rice each year as the United States has in wheat, yet the rice does not bear rice alone, but 'produces at least one and sometimes two other crops each year'.

When and where water is not available for irrigation, the people cultivate 'quick-maturing, drought-resisting millets as the great staple food crops', and for them the water is preserved by 'almost universal planting in hills or drills, and so making possible the utilization of earth mulches in conserving soil moisture'. Thus 'these people have with rare wisdom combined both irrigation and dry farming methods to an extent and with an intensity far beyond anything our people have ever dreamed of, in order that they might maintain these dense populations'.

The canals, moreover, render not only water, but a refreshment of soil itself comparable to that of the overflow of the Nile or of the warping of the Isle of Axholme. 'In China enormous quantities of canal mud are applied to the fields, sometimes at the rate of even seventy or more tons per acre.' And where this mud is not available, they yet refresh the soil in a manner again rivalling the autochthonous renewal of Egypt. 'So, too, where there are no canals, both soil and subsoil are carried into villages and there they are, at the expense of great labour, composted with organic refuse, then dried and pulverized, and finally carried back to the fields to be used as home-made fertilizers.'

Finally, on page 241, he asserted that 'China, Korea and Japan long ago struck the keynote of permanent agriculture ... In selecting rice as their staple crop; in developing and maintaining their systems of combined irrigation and drainage, notwithstanding that they have a large summer rainfall; in their systems of multiple cropping; in their extensive and persistent use of legumes; in their rotations for green manure to maintain the humus of their soils and for composting; and in the almost religious fidelity with which they have returned to their fields. every form of waste which can replace plant food removed by the crops, these nations have demonstrated a grasp of essentials and of fundamental principles which may well cause Western nations to pause and reflect.'

Without much reflection, it must be quite clear that in these works and actions of the Chinese, all the factors which promote the fertility of the soil are brought together so as to ensure and preserve its highest creative power. This is done 'at the expense of great labour' as the true character of the economics of the soil. By such great labour a fair constancy of return from the soil can be assured, a constancy which has no parallel in the dominant money system of our time, a constancy which depends upon the fact that if all the factors of fertility in a locality are brought into the action of cultivation, the results will reach a certain degree which they cannot surpass.

The whole conception of dominant money is, on the other hand, foreign to the soil. When money is lent, it expects to get not itself but more than itself in return. Omitting the speculative hopes of capital improvement, money lent expects an addition of itself called interest.

But in good agriculture, fertility is fully used in producing a crop. It is not and cannot be called upon to create an extra quantity of itself so as to produce an extra crop or interest. Only something parasitical could add itself as an extra growth on decadent vitality and that does not occur in whole farming. In farming dominated by money, however, parasitism is as abundant as debt, like breeding like. If one reads a book on modern farming one cannot help being struck by the number of parasites that take their share in it. There are warble flies, scabs, lice, fleas, maggot flies, bollworms, eelworms, wireworms, fruit flies, fungi, leaf roll, blackscab, blight, mosaic, rust, bunt, smut, leaf stripe, black leg and so on. The more complex scientific farming becomes says Mr. D. H. Robinson, the greater 'the spread of complaints which formerly were unknown or of little importance'.

There is clearly quite a definite difference between a farm carried on for the preservation of a high fertility and one for the immediate production of money-crops, enforced to this by the dominance of money and credit-debt. Once a farm is involved in the credit-debt dominance, once this credit-debt is looked upon as a first need or chief claimant, then agriculture becomes inextricably involved in a huge system, with its owners and managers, and its local, national and international debts. These debts affect everyone within the system. Modern men, therefore, in facing the problem of life, find themselves loaded and hampered by the dead weight of debt. The size and pace of enhancement of these debts are so extreme that there is no hope of their being balanced by the creative power of life. The only reply to them is to use up without replacement the stored fertility of the past. Even this fails. It does not abolish, but extends debts and debtors on the land. The whole position is so utterly beyond any balance that only men with minds split from the reality of creative life could possibly acquiesce in the hypotheses and creeds which have arisen to fortify it and to make it appear rational and sane, hypotheses which were eventually forced to raise the sleek speculator and the barrel-bellied millionaire to the status of darlings of nature; her selections in the survival of the fittest!

The stark fact that appears now, and which wrote itself across the Roman Empire, is that debt and taxation increase as the soil declines. The one is a counterpart of the other. The huge, unpayable debts are the measures of the death of reality; step by step they are matched by the loss of soil-fertility. In coming chapters we shall see how remarkably the greater money dominance of the present era is matched by the greater ill of the soil. The money dominance and its vast debts, personal, local, national and international, are on the side of death and against the creative power of life.

Nature, it must be remembered, has no interest in maintaining a more highly organized form of life such as man is. If he takes a harmonious place in a life-cycle, he will continue; if not, he will be replaced by some other form of organic life, as bracken replaces grass. Survival is not a matter of struggling to be fittest, it is not a matter of the modern boast of the conquest and exploitation of nature. It is a matter of reverence.

Next chapter

Table of Contents
1. Introductory
2. Rome
3. The Roman Foods
4. The Roman Family
5. Roman Soil Erosion
6. Farmers and Nomads
I. The Land
II. The Nomads
III. The Farmers
IV. Nomadic Migrations and Farmers
7. Contrasting Pictures
8. Banks for the Soil
9. Economics of the Soil
10. The English Peasant and Agricultural Labourer
11. Primitive Farmers
12. Nyasa
13. Tanganyika
14. 'Earth Thou Art'
15. Sind and Egypt
16. Fragmentation
17. East and West Indies
18. German Colonies: The Mandates
19. Russia, South Africa, Australia
South Africa
20. The United States of America
21. A Kingdom of Agricultural Art in Europe
22. An Historical Reconstruction
The Initiation
The Institution
The Achievement
23. Recapitulation
24. Action

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