Let’s face it. We all do it. Everyone has an image tucked back into their brains somewhere, an idealized notion of the pastoral life. So many people in so many countries share this romantic idea that it must be a common human trait, something that hearkens back to the time we all put down those flint weapons and picked up those first primitive plowshares. As it turned out, growing crops leads to a much longer life, as opposed to hunting wild beasts (including each other) for a living. Good call, forebears.
But the way that we romanticize our own private Garden of Eden varies considerably around the world. Different countries have different romantic notions of the pastoral life, or as I like to call it, farmer fetishes. In the U.S., where the small farmer is practically an obsolete notion, the fetish is used quite successfully by rent seekers in the great farm subsidy racket (USD 15 billion plus went to fake yeoman farmers last year).
Americans also love the idea of the farmer-turned-politician (or soldier), drawing on the Cincinnatus story to further lionize “gentleman farmers” like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who managed large spreads in Virginia back in the day with the kind assistance of slave labor.
This tradition still speaks to naïve American saps, who have voted in other gentleman farmers over the years, complete with boots and cowboy hats, like George Herbert Walker Bush and son. Most recently, Boston resident and fellow Boston College Law School alum Scott Brown convinced the voters of Massachusetts that his ownership of a truck was proof of his connection with the common (rural) man.
In France, the farmer fetish is militant. A two-second search on Google resulted in the following two stories from the past couple of weeks alone:
What are they protesting against? Eh, who cares? It’s always something: subsidies, the Common Agricultural Policy, the Greek financial bailout, and so on. There is not enough space to list all of the grievances that have piled up over the years. I co-authored an entire book on EU trade policy, and I know for a fact that this type of crap has been going on practically since the first time Monnet and Schuman shook hands.
China of course has its own strange fascination with the farmer, and the country still has hundreds of millions of them – certainly not an obsolete demographic like in the West. China’s immediate love affair with farming can be traced back to its Communist roots, and specifically Mao Zedong’s “Going Down to the Countryside” campaign of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s (上山下乡，shangshan xiaxiang – the accepted English term is not a direct translation).
To simplify, the idea is that the farmer is a font of wisdom, a contrast to the wicked and incorrect notions one picks up in cities living the life of a bourgeoisie. Yes, there I go bringing class into it again.
Back in the ‘60s, the worry was that some folks were backsliding; checking out that wholesome farmer lifestyle was a way to reconnect to ideological purity. Gotta love romanticism, one of my all-time favorite –isms. Coupled with nationalism, romanticism is a sure bet to motivate all those lazy college grads.
With the income gap and class tension back in the news (see my last post on the recent school attacks), our old friend Bo Xilai, who ironically used to be head of the Ministry of Commerce, a bastion of capitalism, is trying to get in on the farmer fetish. Danwei reports on his comments to a group of students-turned-village-administrators:
Today’s Chongqing Evening News reported on Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai’s meeting with university students who had become village-level administrators. Some village cadres reflected with certain remorse how they blundered their jobs in one way or another at the beginning and gradually learned the lack of the true feelings for the people was the cause of all problems. Predictably, Bo, the most authoritative figure present pulled off the old peasants-are-great-let’s-learn-from-them trick once again, praising “farmers have the sincerest emotions” and reiterating that anyone who want to understand China need to understand the Chinese farmers first.
Classic stuff. These two quotes are my favorites:
Our education should not only consist of schools, universities and graduate schools, it should be completed with the vast rural area…What you have learned and experienced there is not inferior to what a graduate school can teach you.
For the Chinese people, the vast countryside has the most fundamental knowledge, hundreds and millions of farmers have the sincerest emotions.
I don’t see Bo’s language motivating any young grads to go back to the countryside to drink at the font of their wisdom. I think he needed a bit more romanticism in his rhetoric. If he had asked me (strangely, he didn’t), I would have given him a copy of Alexander Pope’s “Ode on Solitude” — works every time. Who can resist this sort of romantic claptrap?
How happy he, who free from care
The rage of courts, and noise of towns;
Contented breathes his native air,
In his own grounds.
That’s just the first stanza, and I already feel like hopping on the next train to all points rural.
In addition to being rather uninspiring, Bo’s comments are a bit outdated, although still well within accepted political rhetoric. For the most part, modern Chinese politicians bring out the idealized countryside when pushing policies designed to narrow the income gap, alleviate poverty, and build up adequate education and health care systems.1
It’s nice to know that some kinds of politics never go out of style. From Scott Brown’s pickup truck, to tractors chugging down the Champs-Elysee, to Bo Xilai’s neo-上山下乡, the farmer fetish never fails. As long as the policies enumerated above are the extent of China’s current farm fetish, I think we can all live with the romantic rhetoric. Better than having U.S.-style farm subsidies and rioting French farmers, right?
- I couldn’t write an entire post without including at least one reference to the income gap. It’s becoming my “thing.” [↩]