Tracts Against Capitalism:
The Southern Agrarians and Economic Critique

A Special Session at the MLA 2005 Annual Convention in Washington D.C.

In 1930 twelve self-proclaimed southerners published the symposium I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. That collection has since become a consistently controversial yet crucial text in American intellectual history. The contributors intended for the book to be a defense of the agrarian economic system endemic to the US South against the paradigm shift toward industrialism in the region. Making an anti-capitalist argument, the contributors contend that industrialism spoils the natural relationship of the individual to the community and of the community to the land. They predict that industrialism in the South will lead to numerous bad consequences, including the dehumanization and exploitation of workers, the erosion of traditional social and religious values, and the eruption of communism. In fact, some of the more ideologically-confrontational contributors to the collection suggested that the title “Tracts against Communism” would be more appropriate.

Because some of the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand later became major figures in both southern modernism and the New Criticism—including John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—the collection has been a touchstone for literary scholars, many of whom see it as a reactionary conservative apology for traditional values in a progressive era. While this case is not necessarily invalid, it overlooks the facts that the Southern Agrarians were quite radical for their time and that they predicate their argument on a critique of capitalism, even as they reject communism. Yet, while economic critique and public policy clearly play a role in the Agrarian project, none of the contributors to the collection were trained social scientists, with the exception of one psychologist. Instead, the Agrarians were writers and critics who, contrary to the tenets of formalism, apparently believed that economic practices and cultural production were directly related.

Coinciding with the seventy-fifth anniversary of I’ll Take My Stand, this panel, chaired by Susan V. Donaldson of the College of William and Mary, will interrogate the contentious, often contradictory, relationship between the Agrarians’ economic critique and their artistic production. Many of the scholars who have addressed this issue associate the Agrarians’ defense of a traditional agriculture-based economy with later developments in American conservative thought. Indeed, as Paul V. Murphy explains in The Rebuke of History: The Southern Agrarians and American Conservative Thought, during the Cold War many of the pivotal contributors to I’ll Take My Stand aligned themselves with ideologically-conservative intellectuals, such as William Seward and Russell Kirk. But before the Cold War, the Agrarians occupied an ideologically indeterminate space: both anti-capitalist and anti-communist, both progressive and conservative, both elitist and proletarian, and both modernist and anti-modernist. Since the Agrarians were primarily writers, one would reasonably expect their literary works to reflect their critique of economic systems. The papers on this panel will interrogate the nexus between the Agrarians’ economic critique and their intellectual and artistic representations of agrarian communities.

"Taking the Economic Turn: John Crowe Ransom's Curious Approach to God," Paul V. Murphy, Grand Valley State Univ.
This paper interrogates John Crowe Ransom’s determined effort to write economic theory in the early 1930s—a quixotic ambition that led him to contemplate leaving academia and that resulted in his spending a sabbatical year studying economics. Specifically, this paper will explore why his contribution to I’ll Take My Stand is shaped by economic critique rather than theology. Ransom was deeply engaged in religious questions in 1929 and 1930, resulting in God Without Thunder, a blast at liberal theology. The connection between economic critique and theology reveals the taproot of Ransom’s—and the Agrarians’—radical conservatism. For Ransom, religion and economics were interconnected: he came to the one through the other. Religion, he believed, dictates political economy. This paper proposes a new reading of Ransom’s contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, as well as the range of Ransom’s writings on economics and religion, based on his engagement with the realities of the “new economy” of the 1920s, which he called “our vicious economic system” and which he saw as the secular image of a false and superficial Humanism.

"The Interpellation of Percy Munn," David A. Davis, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
This paper will examine the economic subjectification of the individual in Robert Penn Warren’s novel Night Rider. Although Warren was the youngest and most ideologically ambivalent of the Agrarians, his first novel, which he began composing in 1930, represents many of the central themes discussed in I’ll Take My Stand, in particular the relationship between the individual and the community. In the story, Percy Munn, an idealistic attorney, attempts to lead a rebellion of tobacco farmers against a plutocratic growers’ association, but he finds the farmers frustratingly resistant to rebellion, thus unwilling to engage in class struggle. Using Louis Althusser’s theory of the Ideological State Apparatus, the paper will argue that the community represents a matrix of self-perpetuating hegemonic values. Ironically, Munn’s agitation of behalf of the farmers places him outside the community’s values, which initiates a process of ideological subjectification that demonstrates the working of ideological state apparatuses in the community. The paper contends that Munn’s refusal to conform inevitably results in his fatal exclusion from the community.

"Liquid Capital: The Unspeakable Economies of Agrarian Ideology," John T. Matthews, Boston Univ.
This paper examines a rhetoric of the unspeakable in Stark Young’s contribution to I’ll Take My Stand, “Not in Memoriam, But in Defense.” Young’s essay valorizes an indescribable sensibility that he associates with the South’s elite class, but, just as he is incapable of naming that sensibility, his discussions of race as a rubric for labor break off abruptly. The paper contends that the unnamable sensibility Young attributes to white southerners—leisure—originates in the exploitation of black labor, the issue that Young cannot discuss. Drawing upon Slavoj Žižek’s notion that sublimity masks the hegemonic class’s indebtedness to capitalist exchange and commodification of the proletariat class, the paper will suggest that unsolvable silence recurs in the work of other Agrarian writers, such as Allen Tate’s novel The Fathers. Ultimately, the paper argues that the unspeakable indicates an evident problem in the Agrarian project: they criticize capitalism incarnated as industrialism as an economically unjust system, but they are unable to present themselves as innocent of the same injustice.


Address inquiries to david_davis@unc.edu.