AGRARIANISM: defining the terms: part 1 of 3


Kevin Rhowbotham © 2013
Andrew Wyeth. Le Monde de Christina. (1948).
In this dirty old part of the city
Where the sun refuse to shine
People tell me there ain’t no use in trying
Now my girl you’re so young and pretty
And one thing I know is true
You’ll be dead before your time is due
I know
Watch my daddy in bed and tired
Watch his hair bin turning grey
He’s been working and slaving his life away
Oh yes, I know it
He’s been working so hard
I’ve been working too babe
Every night and day
Yeah yeah yeah yeah
We gotta get out of this place
If it’s the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
’cause girl, there’s a better life
For me and you
 ‘We gotta get out of  this place’:  Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil: recorded by The Animals, 1965


Agrarian Seeds

The seeds of agrarianism lie in the fecund soil of early pre-industrial societies. Agrarianism takes root in societies which have not established any division of labour and which maintain inter-marrying familial organisations as primary social structures. In these societies livelihoods rest upon inter dependence and egalitarian self-sufficiency. For profit structures are anathema to this form of social organisation. Usury[i], the attachment of money interest to borrowed assets, is avoided by the permanent fixing of prices. Stability, and prosperity for the community, is the philosophical focus of this structure, which attempts permanent sustainability, through social equilibrium and husbandry.




The Agrarian Dialectic

Currently the term ‘agrarianism’ has two common meanings. The first refers to a socio-political philosophy which values rural society over urban society, the independent farmer over the paid worker, and projects farming as a way of life that can shape ideal social values. It stresses the superiority of a ‘simpler’ bucolic life, as opposed to a life in the industrial city. The second meaning refers to a variety of political actions constructed to effect the redistribution of land from rich to poor and to the landless. The use of the term ’agrarian’ is common in Latin affiliated languages, and originates from the “Lex Sempronia Agraria” or “agrarian laws” of Rome, imposed in 133 BC, by Tiberius Gracchus, under the terms of which, public land (ager publicus), was seized from the wealthy and re-distributed to the poor. These two meanings, ‘bucolic ruralism’, and ‘forced redistribution’, construct two poles of a dialectic which circumnavigate the meaning of ‘agrarian’ and ‘agrarianism’, with respect to their contemporary usages. These two meanings aggregate concepts of communalism, utopianism and nationalism, to varying degrees, and set out a broad spectrum of political interests. The Chinese Schools of Agrarianism and Confucianism advocated communalism and egalitarianism, as the founding social principles of sustainable peasant farming communities. Socrates, Aristotle, and Horace enthusiastically applauded the art of husbandry and the lives of the shepherd and the cultivator. Virgil’s writes ecstatically, for example, about the peaceful life of the Arcadians, a primitive people of the Greek Peloponnesus, coining the term ‘Arcadia’, which projected an idealized pastoral society. Both Chinese and Greek roots of the term ‘agrarian’ are seminal to the intellectual determination of an idealist agrarianism which spawned a welter of socio-political ideas, most significant of which were, Jefferson’s agrarian republicanism[i], the neo-Confucianist philosophy of ‘Physiocracy’[ii], the economic ideas of John Locke, a Confucian sympathiser, most especially the ‘labour theory of property’[iii]  and the neo-Arcadian vision of the Romantic poets. The 19th century, however, constructed the alternative pole of the agrarian critique which applied the Roman rather than the Greek and Chinese tradition. Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin, the most famous among many others, established an intellectual alternative to the organisation of society by means of centralised government. Named Anarchy from the Medieval Latin term anarchia extracted from the Greek, anarchos (having no ruler), this movement constructed a political philosophy which proposed the equitable distribution of property and the decentralisation of power systems. Karl Marx declared that property should be held in common, for the common benefit. Both Anarchist and Marxist tendencies recall Roman forced redistribution (Lex Sempronia Agraria), in order to combat the structural inequalities of, for profit capitalism, arguing that the structural contradictions of usury can only be vitiated by communitarian, not for profit, social systems. The drift of architectural and urban morphology has mapped the structural developments of capital exchange as stone and steel.  The industrial city is, in a very real sense, a reification of capital markets. Anxieties concerning the monotony, social anomie (lack of social norms) and temporal tedium, which the industrial city has pressed upon migrating agrarian communities, rest upon a dismembering of long established community structures. But cities like nations have never been communities and cannot provide the context in which a longed for communalism can be easily constructed.

“Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”  
– Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States

The city offers a severing form all things familiar and permanent; it is the site of conflicts at high speed.



Architectural Modernism, which evangelised the ‘International Style’ as a ubiquitous urban form, initiated globalisation, before its full emergence in the late 20th century as a comprehensive corporate structure. The image of the global city was already present before capitalism forged ubiquitous international trading structures.


left to right:-
1. Ludwig Hilberseimer, Entwurf für eine Hochhausstadt/Design for a high-rise city. (1924)
2. Ivan Leonidov, Lenin Institute 1927.
 3. Scene from Metropolis,Fritz Lang 1927.
In the phase of heroic Modernism, the early twentieth century city was still reliant upon its hinterland for subsistence supplies of food and other non-manufactured goods, exhibiting the relationships illustrated by Patrick Geddes in his famous ‘valley section’. In the phase of heroic Modernism, the early twentieth century city was still reliant upon its hinterland for subsistence supplies of food and other non-manufactured goods, exhibiting the relationships illustrated by Patrick Geddes in his famous ‘valley section’.      
from left to right:-
1. Peter Smithson (1954). Illustration of the ‘Valley Section’ extemporised from the sociologically based diagram, drawn by the Scottish town planner Patrick Geddes, illustrating the relationship of city to hinterland.
2. Reproduction of Patrick Geddes original ‘Valley Section’  ©1913

This interdependence of the city with its contiguous countryside has since become attenuated if not altogether overwhelmed by the centralised supply of subsistence goods from international sources. The establishment of large corporate supermarket chains has industrialised the supply of subsistence goods, ensuring that what was once local and specific to the city region, is now ubiquitous and globalised. This transformation of the conditions of subsistence supply, not only flattens the differences between cities, but dangerously etiolates the supply chain, forcing hinterlands to be more responsive to corporate supermarket demands and less able to respond to subsistence demands of the contiguous city. Under this system of industrialised corporate supply, and in the fullness of time, the city and its hinterland will be entirely disconnected, leaving the city exposed to the dangers of a breakdown in international trade.

Global Sustainability
In urban terms globalisation is both an extension of contiguity between city and country, and its dissolution. The increased speed of infra-structural communications has opened up competitive access to distant markets, whilst at the same time reducing heterogeneity in local sources. Subsistence supplies are no longer derived locally (since they must respond to the demands for increased monocultural efficiency), but must rely instead on the maintenance of complex infrastructural communications links. The fog of meaning which surrounds the term ‘sustainability’, from an urban perspective at least, can only be vitiated when the structural conditions for a sustainable economy are met. Usury capitalism requires the division of labour, which relies, in turn, upon a flexible price economy (prices are unfixed and unfixable). Sustainability, the continued maintenance of ubiquitous subsistence, can only be achieved by fixed price structures, in which the relations of exchange are permanently stable and permanently predictable.

To achieve a sustainable economic order requires the establishment of an economic system of a singularly uncommon form, altogether anathema to the present conditions of neo-liberal capitalism. Consequently any move to such a system, to what might be called a sustainable system of fixed price exchange, which can avoid dramatic social transformation, remains such a remote eventuality as to be virtually impossible to establish, and is effectively a distant, utopian figment, masquerading as a contemporary myth.

Landscape Urbanism
Landscape Urbanism is a theory of city planning and morphology which assumes the discipline of landscape, rather than architecture, can provide a more appropriate organization structure for the achievement of an enhanced urban experience. A theoretical structure for this new discipline began to emerge in the late 1990s following its initiation, by the Australian landscape architect Peter Connolly who defines it as a…

“…disciplinary realignment where landscape supplants architecture’s role as the basic building block of urban design.”


Similar areas of enquiry were being simultaneously perused at University of Pennsylvania in the late 1980’s which produced some of its early protagonists, to wit, James Corner, Mohsen Mostafavi, Charles Waldheim, Anu Mathur, Alan Berger, Chris Reed, amongst others. In April 1997 the Graham Foundation in Chicago sponsored the Landscape Urbanism conference which focused the debate and established a springboard from which Waldheim, Corner and Mostafavi began to proselytise its precepts at UIC Chicago and later at the Architectural Association in London. Waldheim, currently Landscape Architecture chair of the GSD at Harvard is perhaps the most loquacious on the subject of Landscape Urbanism describing it as…

“… the ability to produce urban effects traditionally achieved through the construction of buildings simply through the organization of horizontal surfaces.”


The origins of Landscape Urbanism can be traced to postmodern critiques of modernist architecture and planning and rely upon an analogous formalist critique. Similarities exist between Colin Rowe’s reliance on the picturesque ideas of the Viennese urban morphologist Camilo Sitte[i] and a landscape discipline which assumes that ‘urban effects’ structured through the manipulation of horizontal surfaces is sufficient to ease the malaise of poverty and ecological degradation in the late industrial city. Rowe’s formalist Contextualism, no less than its European Neo-rationalist confederate, although causing some temporary but ultimately stylistic changes of direction in architectural urban morphology, remained ultimately ineffective, deflecting rather than overturning the association of urban architecture to the corporate development machine.

The tenor of argument used within the discipline of Landscape Urbanism, makes much of a perceived need for ecological renovation of the modernist city, but attempts little political engagement with landscape as productive or subsistence land use nor its equitable re-distribution. To this extent it retains only some aspects of a Jeffersonian idealism and embraces a post-Romantic vision of the bucolic as an operating agenda. It remains, for all its claims to the contrary, preciously close to the aesthetic formalism of Rowe and the post- Modern revisionists. For both positions, concepts of instrumental utility and comfort (an inferred fragment of Vitruvius of quoted slogan firmitas, utilitas, venustas, are preferred to equitability and communitarian stability.

From an agrarian perspective, the Landscape Urbanist position falls squarely within a Greek and Chinese, rather than a Roman vision, and offers little social or economic substance with which to combat the ills of the ailing industrial city corpus, it so desperately wishes to heal. In his essay ‘Notes Towards a History of Agrarian Urbanism’[ii], Charles Waldheim calls upon Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Hilberseimer and Antonio Branzi in his defence of this formalist agenda. Certainly in Wright’s Broadacre City, there are aspects of a ‘Usonian’[iii] utopianism which conveniently laid to one side, the projected consequences of usury capitalism and its reliance on the industrial city. The anachronistic Jeffersonian solution of ‘one acre, one cow’ and ‘land for all’, calls for a type of subsistence, sustainable only under infeasible economic conditions and at much reduced global population densities.

For Hilberseimer as for Branzi, Landscape Urbanism’s reliance on a formalist agenda would have rendered it entirely ineffective with respect to the salient issues they wished, separately to peruse; Hilberseimer’s structured de-centralisation of the American industrial city and Branzi’s extended spacio-political analysis of commodity capitalism and its effects on urban logistics and inhabitation. Consequently they seem at odds with an approach which seeks resolution of urban anomie in aesthetic manipulation and therefore strange confederates of Waldheim’s apolitical aestheticism.

In order to gain a purchase on the intellectual intentions of Branzi in contradistinction to the general thrust of Landscape Urbanism position I include below a substantial extract from Branzi’s ‘Radical Notes’, concerning the nature of mass culture and the possibility of architecture, first published in Casabella  No. 399 March 1975.

With the development of the electronic media and mass-culture, architecture has become something of a minor art. Even if by this reductive term one means all those cultural activities applied to minor structures and systems of communication, this distinction, however academic, may be of some schematic use in revealing the modifications in specific weight to which the various cultural techniques have been subjected in our society.
Architecture, once considered the most complete and noble of the arts, has lost its pre-eminence not only because of the external difficulties of a political and economic nature that it has always encountered, but also because of a deep internal crisis now afflicting it as a result of modifications in the mechanisms of cultural production and of the urban function itself.
Today the city is becoming more and more a structure offering services, a place merely to live in; it is no longer one of society’s cultural structures. 
The communication carried out by architecture, based on the allegory of balances between man and his natural environment, is motionless in space and lacking in the depth of psychic penetration that the electronic media have achieved. 
Today the city is no longer a cultural “place” but a “condition”. Urban culture, in other words, is independent of the city as a place and it coincides with the culture of consumption.
To be an urbanite today does not mean to live in a city but to adopt a specific model of behaviour made up of a certain way of speaking, of printed and televised information, of a particular kind of clothing, of the music one listens to: wherever these media arrive, the city arrives. 
There is no longer any culture external to the urban phenomenon in as much as there is no longer any countryside representing a real and logical alternative; there is no place which does not to some extent communicate with the city and Its models. The “urban condition” coincides with the social circulation of goods, which can be exported from any metropolitan area. 
Every day millions of cubic metres of this new type of city are produced, and every day millions of cubic metres of city become rubbish, in keeping with the laws of a metabolism unknown to the immoveable equilibria of the city.
The concept of culture itself is changing. 
Until quite recently produced by a small group of intellectual professionals and consumed by a numberless mass of readers, visitors, subscribers, enthusiasts and voyeurs who had only to buy the book, disc or ticket, and were institutionally excluded from any right to produce or consume a private culture as a natural right (since culture is a higher and “universal” good, to produce which one must undergo a stressful series of exercises, tests, studies, examinations, consultation, and dedicate his life to it), culture, as I was saying, is now experienced as an immediate, spontaneous good, the direct product of a certain social behaviour and a model of consumption, an economic stimulus. 
What we are witnessing here is the reversal of the traditional hierarchies; more importance is attributed to the window dresser, decorator, fashion designer, expert in colours, upholsterer, opinion leader, taster, make-up expert, etc. than to the “artist” intent on sending out allegorical messages to the world.
Architectonic quality is much less important than the quality of the microclimate one experiences inside, and good acoustics are preferred to observance of the laws of composition …Architecture now becomes a “minor art” applied to the harmonious resolution of functional and structural problems and kept outside the real circuits determining the” quality of life” and culture.
The masterwork of architecture ended not only when culture became an article of consumption but when the profession definitely took the place of the art; as long as the schools of architecture were clubs for a few enthusiasts, methodological planning opened large areas of “creative” variations; but now that architectonic planning has to be taught to thousands of people, it is idle to think of introducing unknown quantities of any kind. 
The number of unknown factors that architectonic planning is called on to resolve today has been reduced almost to zero.
Variation in design consists of a simple compositional scheme often chosen at random without regard for different cultural areas, but only for the availability of elements differentiated on the industrial plane alone. Pasolinl claims that there are no longer any somatic differences between youths of the left and the right. It is also true that there are no ideologies capable of producing different results in the architectonic idiom.
The long Italian battle fought against construction surveyors, responsible for the low cultural level of much urban architecture, is the result of a mistake rooted in the certainty long cultivated by the Modern Movement that there Is an indivisible identity between urban quality and civilization. 
The quality that we ask of the city today has nothing to do with form or composition, but only with the quality of social services and the market. 
For architects, the time has come for a bit of modesty …
Andea Branzi ©1975

Ecology, if it is to mean the establishment and the continuity of an ecological equilibrium must, of necessity, require all aspects of natural and cultural production to fall within its suzerainty: to be, in the fullest sense of the term, always and already sustainable. Landscape Urbanism, if it wishes to seriously pursue an effective ecological agenda and escape claims to empty formalism, should provide a social, political and economic philosophy which is sufficient to achieve this.


[i] See Camillo Sitte: City Building According To Artistic Principles (1889) and City planning according to artistic principles. / Translated from the German by George R. Collins and Christiane Crasemann Collins.


[iii] Usonia was a term coined by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright to refer to his vision for the landscape of the United States, including the planning of cities and the architecture of buildings. Wright proposed the use of the adjective Usonian in place of American to describe the particular New World character of the American landscape as distinct and free of previous architectural conventions. 

[i] The American Thomas Jefferson was a representative agrarian, who fashioned a notion of democracy upon the idealisation of farmers as “the most valuable citizens” and the truest republicans.
[ii] Physiocracy (from the Greek for “Government of Nature”) is an economic theory developed by the Physiocrats, a group of economists who believed that the wealth of nations was derived solely from the value of “land agriculture” or “land development.” Their theories originated in France and were most popular during the second half of the 18th century. Physiocracy is perhaps the first well-developed theory of economics. The movement was particularly dominated by François Quesnay (1694–1774) and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727–1781). It immediately preceded the first modern school, classical economics, which began with the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in 1776.
[iii] The labour theory of property or the labour theory of appropriation or the labour theory of ownership or the labour theory of entitlement is a natural law theory that holds that property originally comes about by the exertion of labour upon natural resources. It is also called the principle of first appropriation or the homestead principle and was first proposed by the philosopher John Locke in 1689 in his Second Treatise on Government in which he asked …by what right an individual can claim to own one part of the world, when, according to the Bible, God gave the world to all humanity in common. He answered that persons own themselves and therefore their own labour. When a person works, that labour enters into the object. Thus, the object becomes the property of that person.  
[i] Some of the earliest known condemnations of usury come from the Vedic texts of India. Similar condemnations are found in religious texts from Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the term is ribain Arabic and ribbit in Hebrew). At times, many nations from ancient China to ancient Greece to ancient Rome have outlawed loans with any interest. Though the Roman Empire eventually allowed loans with carefully restricted interest rates, the Christian church in medieval Europe banned the charging of interest at any rate. The pivotal change in the English-speaking world came  with the 1545 act, “An Act Against Usurie”  of King Henry VIII, which permitted the charging of interest on money loans.

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