What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth by Wendell Berry (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010. 256 pp)

Born in rural Kentucky, Wendell Berry is a farmer, critic, and prolific author. He has published many novels, essays, poems, and short stories. Berry received his B.A. and M.A. in English from the University of Kentucky before attending Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program. He obtained a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and taught English at New York University before taking a position on faculty at the University of Kentucky.  After a decade of teaching, Berry purchased a farm in the Kentucky countryside where he currently works and writes about the virtues of connecting with the land. Berry has won numerous awards including the T.S. Eliot Award, the Thomas Merton Award, and the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

Etymologically Speaking

Etymologically speaking, “economy” comes from the Greek word, “oikonomia.” A compound word, oikonomia comes from oikos meaning “household” and nomos meaning “law.” So, oikonomia literally translates as “the law of the household.”

Obviously, this definition differs greatly from the standard definition society places on economy. These days, we understand economy as “the wealth and resources created from the goods and services of a distinctive region.”

Clearly, a stark shift has occurred from ancient to modern times surrounding the conception of economy. Now, we live in a global marketplace. While it may have made sense in ancient Athens to contemplate the marketplace in local and family terms, these days our goods and services span the globe and our work connects with large organizations, not a nuclear family.

But can we learn anything from the etymological roots of economy? Is there value in returning to the roots of this word and establishing a new definition of economy merging the old and the new?

While he’s not an academically trained economist, renaissance man Wendell Berry urges us to reconsider our conception of economy in his series of essays, What Matters?

What connects the essays in this book is the deconstruction of the standard view of “economy” and a reconstruction of the marketplace returning to the ancient conceptions of economy.

Deconstructing Economy

For starters, Berry contends against the basic inferences of economy—that it serves everyone through a continued upward mobility of all.

“[When] money is misused to grow from itself into heaps in the possession inevitably of fewer and fewer people, it cannot be rightly used for the production of goods or even to maintain the subsistence of the people. Workers will not be well paid for good work. The arts will not flourish, and neither will nature” (12).

In fact, Berry utilizes art as an example against this idea. We all safely assume technology and business will constantly innovate and if one business dies, another will replace it. But this belief does not mirror our understanding of creativity and art.

“We must assume that we had one chance each for The Divine Comedy and King Lear. If Dante and Shakespeare had died before they wrote those poems, nobody would have written them” (52).

Without Shakespeare, the face of English literature would be altered significantly. Shouldn’t then the same principle apply to our work?

If true, then individual work matters greatly. Forcing a person out of a job or eliminating career paths for the greater good of society, then, removes the complexity and richness of our culture.

Berry drives this point home with his lamentation on work:

“Among the many costs of the total economy, the loss of the principle of vocation is probably the most symptomatic and, from a cultural standpoint, the most critical. It is by the replacement of vocation with economic determinism that the exterior workings of a total economy destroy human character and culture also from the inside” (188).

As a Kentucky farmer, Berry experiences vocation first hand. The work of his hands translates into sustenance for his local community. His daily activity carries meaning for his family and those living around him.

Berry has observed the shift in labor trends as generations move away from the farm house, even if they’d rather work in agriculture, because the jobs gestate in urban jungles.

So where ought we to go? What truly matters?

Constructing Economy

The answer, for Berry, lies with the local economy.

He notes,

“We need, instead, a system of decentralized, small-scale industries to transform the products of our fields and woodlands  and streams: small creameries, cheese factories, canneries, grain mills, saw mills, furniture factories, and the like. By ‘small’ I mean simply a size that would not be destructive of the appearance, the health, and the quiet of the countryside. If a factory began to ‘grow’ or to be noisy at night or on a Sunday, that would mean that another such factory was needed somewhere else” (79).

These small-scale businesses work not exclusively toward maximized profit, but toward the flourishing of the local community.

“People do need jobs that serve natural and human communities, not arbitrarily ‘created’ jobs that serve only the economy” (6).

Wendell Berry’s weltanschauug—philosophy of life—in What Matters corresponds with a return to the classical definition of economy. Our work must match the law of our household and the community in which we reside. Once we remove this definition, the marketplace unmoors and drifts to places which marginalize people, pillage the earth, and benefit a small few.

Wendell Berry’s voice is prophetic and What Matters is required reading for anyone in business, not necessarily because it offers the cure-all for how to change business, but because it presents a crucial voice against a business-as-usual approach. The local community matters because it keeps us grounded. When we work, we ought to consider how our actions influence those around us.

Go read What Matters.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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