The Obsolescent Village Reborn

Villages of the world will be around long after the New Yorks -
and may be one of the last lines of resistance
in preserving our planet

One of the articles in Economics In An Intellegent Universe (IC#2)
Originally published in Spring 1983 on page 37
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

The following article serves as a bridge between last issue’s theme of community and this one’s theme of economics. Belden has been working with village life, both in rural Italy and in America’s inner cities, for many years. He is a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin and has helped to shape mainstream attitudes about the village. In this article, he talks about the changes in these attitudes that he and others have gone through, and in the process illustrates the impact that policies based on conventional economics have had on communities throughout the world.

With his wife, Lisa, and several others, he is involved in the High Wind Association, a part urban, part rural community exploring various approaches to a humane sustainable culture.

AFTER A GREAT DEAL of study and travel, I have become convinced that the villages of the world may be one of the last lines of resistance in preserving our planet. There are more than two million villages, although no one has really made a count. They have remarkable similarities despite differences of history and geography, which suggests a kind of universal village culture. There is a closeness to the earth and ecological institutions. The organization of life and economics is small scale and manageable. There is individual and community self-sufficiency, with heavy reliance on renewable energy and relatively low dependence on the outside market economy. Craftsmanship is important – things are made to last because limited resources do not permit frequent refabrication. Families are cohesive and interdependent, with different generations helping and learning from each other. There is a strong sense of community, where all the facets of life somehow fit together as if they were modeled by one maker. The people still marvel at the larger mysteries of existence, and they recognize their integration not only with each other but with the larger elements over which they have little control. One could say that the village is sustainable because of its closeness to the natural world, and a kind of ancient intuition in its people that has evolved over long periods. I have a gut feeling that the villages of the world will be around long after the New Yorks.

This description may appear to be romanticized, because much of the world’s village economy appears to be on its last breath. Contemporary mass culture, based in urbanization and industrialization, was thought to make the village economy and the structure of village life obsolete. People had come to believe that there was no scarcity of natural resources; therefore, the "limits" of the village perspective, where every resource was husbanded, could be surmounted. Science and technology seemed capable of overcoming the human destruction of air, water and soil. The care that the village took to pass down a stable environment to the succeeding generation was construed as an exaggerated concern. The political institutions of modern society (be they pluralistic or one-party) and economic institutions like capitalism or communism could apparently intervene to resolve whatever human needs were at hand.

This modern expectation made the slow, organic evolution of civilization as the village had known it appear to be impossibly archaic. And the modern acceptance of the materialistic ethic as life’s central drive fostered economic growth in an unending upward spiral of production and consumption, and in turn seemed to advance human fulfillment and the quality of life. The village, with its intangibles and modest proportions, was left on the slow track called "pre-modern."

The village-based economy, especially as practiced in developing countries, has been seen as a major obstacle to rapid economic development. And the gap has been widening between these heavily rural areas and the industrial world, not to mention – within the Third World itself – between the rural/small town economy and the industrial sector. During the last few decades, the GNP growth rates in industrial countries have been about twice those in low income countries, and in 1980, the richest fifth of the world’s population had an income 45 times higher than the poorest fifth.

Economists point to a close correlation between urbanization/industrialization and higher incomes. Thus development models have emphasized that the way to upgrade living standards is obvious: urbanize and industrialize. This is exactly what has been happening. The high-income industrial countries are highly urbanized, but the urban growth rate has recently slowed down; the middle- income countries have been rapidly urbanizing during the last twenty years; the low income countries are now rapidly urbanizing but most of the population is still non-urban; and the oil exporters (e.g. Saudi Arabia) with their new riches have been urbanizing with dramatic speed.

Regarding industrialization, the statistics show: the number of people working in agriculture is dwindling everywhere, to the point that there are infinitesimal numbers among the industrial market economies and oil exporters; services are now the largest production sector for the industrial market and middle-income economies; in most countries agriculture has a very low growth rate compared to industrialization, which is two to three times faster.

An explanation is obviously in order to defend my initial statement about the extreme importance of villages to the health of the planet. My thinking stems largely from my experience of the villages of Italy, although my studies and travels have taken me into many parts of the world.

Villages As The Problem

When I began working in Italy in the early postwar year of 1950, the two great social and economic drives were to rebuild the country’s war-devastated economy, through the Marshall Plan and related aid; and to restructure the traditional Italian economy through modernization and development. The first goal was high priority but short term, and it was accomplished in a few years. The second goal was low priority and long term; it involved not merely reconstructing what had been obliterated, but attempting to transform a culture that had been rooted in the villages for centuries.

I first worked in the waterfront slums of Naples, where thousands of people were huddled in caves and ruined buildings. Many were displaced villagers who had sought a new life in southern Italy’s largest city. A few years later I worked on the Island of Sardinia where I participated in creating a small rural community made up of refugees mostly from eastern Europe. In one project, I set up a village council, which consisted of the Communist mayor from a nearby town, a Catholic priest and myself, in order to select jobless residents for work projects. Then I moved to Rome to serve two years with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and I continued to have many contacts with Italian villages.

In particular, I came to know one community, Castelfuoco (a pseudonym), in the hills thick with vineyards, thirty miles from Rome. Most of its five thousand inhabitants were snuggled inside an ancient stone wall, the residue of a once flourishing feudal domain. After completing my UN assignment, I lived for several months in an Irish Augustinian monastery just outside the village, and since then have followed the development of this community for more than twenty years, returning to it several times. I built a close friendship with a young man who had lived in the village all his life, as had his parents and ancestors. We have written one book together and are now working on a second.

Through these experiences I have observed the continuing refrain in many circles of Italy, which is echoed in other countries: the village is archaic, its economy is technologically primitive and unproductive, the social institutions are backward. The Italian government, with help in the earlier years from the American government and international agencies, was giving all kinds of aid, tax concessions and subsidies to encourage people to abandon the villages. Few women would marry a man still working the land. A government agency even pushed for a policy of killing the cattle in the villages, since it was considered more economical to import meat. When there was a heavy storm that destroyed the crops, the government gave the farmers no help, while a great deal of assistance was handed to new industries in the cities. The government facilitated the explosive postwar boom of industrialization and urbanization by enticing workers to populate the factories in the new expanding industries.

Upon joining the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, one of the courses I taught for a number of years was "The Politics of Developing Areas." I used much of the material that I had assembled for my doctoral dissertation on the villages of southern Italy. I was also tuned into the thinking emerging from a vanguard group of social scientists funded in the 1960s by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC Group), who were producing a series of books exploring economic and political systems on a global basis. These circumstances led me to buttress the prevailing conventional thinking that village culture was a major impediment to social and economic development in the Third World.

One of the concepts in my dissertation was immobilismo, the seeming incapacity of the villagers to organize themselves to begin to solve their problems. I had lived very close to Italian poverty among the displaced villagers in Naples, in Sardinian communities, and – in an intimate way – in Castelfuoco, and had identified reasons for the chronic poverty. These were rooted in history, class structure, political corruption and lack of social conscience in the leadership class, in the nature of the village government, in the school system, the family and the pre-capitalistic system. People waited for "miracles" as a main cause of change.

I saw this complex of problems as a kind of holistic vice: everything held everything in place to prevent significant change. The easiest way to break out from this morass was simply to withdraw from the village, to emigrate to the nearest big city or to another country. In the postwar years thousands of southern Italian villagers swept into cities such as Naples or Rome, manned the factories and accepted jobs in burgeoning government agencies. This view of village immobilismo and emigration fit snugly into the models of the economists, and of such Italian public agencies as The Fund for the South, which was trying to industrialize and urbanize southern Italy. (Its results incidentally, have been modest.)

The SSRC Group, in seeking to comprehend political systems in their totality, studied political structure and political culture. Structures were analyzed in terms of the specialization of roles and subsystems. Political systems in traditional villages that had relatively few specialized roles, for example, were considered to be less developed than those of urban industrialized communities that had modern government, complex bureaucracies, and autonomous groups such as political parties, pressure groups and mass media. The SSRC Group conceptualized political culture in terms of people’s attitudes toward politics: their level of information and knowledge about politics, their feelings and their opinions.

Villagers who had little understanding of the political system were considered to be less developed, politically speaking, than those who had a high level of information and recognized their own role as political participants. Because political life in many villages was not specialized and political sophistication was minimal, this type of analysis had the effect of portraying the village as politically backward. The clear implication was that leadership in the urban industrial areas represented the advanced thinking.

New Perspectives

My views began to shift at the beginning of the 1970s, especially during a visit to Castelfuoco in 1973. In earlier years there had been no criticism of mass culture. On the contrary, this was seen as the model for the future. Villagers in Castelfuoco and elsewhere saw the city lights and all of the material progress that went with industrialization as the way out of misery and oppression.

But a few people who had left the village started trickling back to the land. Some of the youth who had gone to the city were longing for their family properties. They sent back money to put in wells, construct small buildings, replace or rejuvenate the vineyards. Bus drivers couldn’t wait to finish work in order to get back to the village on evenings and weekends to work their land. Even some politicians began to admit that some of their earlier policies were in error, that far more attention should have been paid to small agriculture and the sustenance of village life. People re- valued the land. The first oil crisis had just hit the world, and the importance of natural resources had suddenly gained headlines.

In the cities former villagers reacted to the inhumanity of "modern life." Cities like Rome had been very livable until the latter 1960s. Then, the enormous population increases, bad housing, dirt and noise, vices of all sorts, violence and personal danger became the order of the day. Villagers who had never locked their doors, left their farm tools on the land, never saw an act of violence in the community, started to rethink. Part of it was simply a rebellion against the disorder of the big city. Part of it was a deeper battle against the new materialism, a longing for the village spirit.

By 1976 I was moving away from traditional teaching into more future-oriented offerings. My wife and I had developed close contact with the community of Findhorn in Scotland, with the New Alchemy Institute and its innovative experiments using different forms of renewable energy, and with the alternative community movement that challenged fundamental assumptions about modern economics, politics, and the environment. A new respect was dawning for old cultures which had developed sustainable living patterns in harmony with the natural world.

I had contact with United Nations officials and futurist thinkers. Like many other people, I had become increasingly sensitive to ominous ecological threats and the real possibility of a nuclear disaster. It was obvious that a number of separate movements that had been mounting strength during that last couple of decades were beginning to come together: spiritual/esoteric, human potential, appropriate technology and renewable energy, ecological, futurist, peace. Each of these groups in individual ways challenged certain basic assumptions of modern mass culture. Humankind, they said, had to adopt a whole new approach to the use of the earth’s natural resources: not only petroleum but water, soil, air, minerals. Waste and toxins of modern industrial society had to be controlled. Economic and political institutions had in varying degrees become dysfunctional and in some instances altogether unmanageable. These groups argued that a transformation of culture was occurring on a global scale, and that it would be rooted in a commitment to the interrelatedness of all things and, therefore, would challenge the type of materialism and competition for resources that had underpinned industrial progress during the last two hundred years.

When I considered all of this within the context of my close relationship to Castelfuoco and other villages I knew, I realized more and more how much we had to learn from the village culture. "Alternative" thinkers and doers were searching for community. Small communities – be they residential or simply groups of people with shared commitments – were emerging everywhere. People in some areas of the United States and Europe returned to small towns and the land, a fact confirmed by recent census figures. One of the exciting activities taking center stage at major conferences was commitment to small community life. Even in some areas of the Third World the historic process of rapid urbanization began to slow down. For example, in some areas of Latin America family subsistence farming not only did not disappear but it gained momentum. One of the "in" terms became "planetary village" (the subject of the first issue of IN CONTEXT) – the attempt to place the village model into a planetary perspective.

In essence, it became clear that the civilization of the village is not obsolete; on the contrary, it offers a radical departure for much of what ails the modern world. The "political underdevelopment" of the village as articulated in the models of the SSRC Group can be seen to have a more positive side. For example, the lack of specialized roles in the village serves individual and community self- sufficiency since the village can virtually stand on its own, with little dependence on outside market and political systems. The village unit has a kind of internal sustenance, essential for when larger "modern" systems collapse or change in fundamental ways. The fact that villagers don’t invest much effort into comprehending and participating in the surrounding political culture has obvious drawbacks in the short run, as illustrated in public policies that subordinate village interests to those of the urban industrial culture. But in the long run, assuming of course that the village itself is able to survive, this lack of immersion into the surrounding political culture (which also implies a certain lack of relevance of that culture) makes the village more durable.

Now seen in perspective, the immobilismo of the village that I had once conceptualized turns out to be a kind of protective shield from complete co-option into the modern world, thus preserving the salient village characteristics. My colleague in Castelfuoco and I discussed this during my last stay in the village, in September 1982. Among many village qualities, we included the following as especially significant.

1. Spirit of the land The land is not merely a means of production; it is a sacred living organism. The land represents the natural order, with all of its unfathomed mysteries. It may be considered even more dear than a member of one’s own family. Ill treatment of the land can be worse than maltreating another human being. The villager who migrates to the city is still considered a villager as long as this attitude remains about the land.

2. Family cohesion The basis of security in the village is not primarily a governmental social security system, or some employer, but the members of one’s own family. For people dependent on agriculture this has often meant large families – the family work force. However, as technology and health care improve, chronic overpopulation has lessened. Economic, social and political interrelationships begin with the family as the core. Thus breakdown of family life, as happened with mass emigration, is a major vehicle of undermining village life.

3. Sense of community The village taken as a whole is much like the land and the family: a living organism. The lines are unclear between the natural world of the flora and fauna and the human world, or between families and government, or between the household subsistence economy and the external commercial economy. The village is a holistic enterprise, which can be seen as "underdeveloped" or "primitive" by social scientists whose reductionist methodology links specialization to complexity and efficiency and therefore to modernity. In actuality, the village may be the apex of complexity.

4. Craftsmanship The tradition of the village is to make things for eternity, not for the market. Value derives from the intrinsic quality of the product, not from the commercial laws of supply and demand. Village craftsmen who erect buildings, make tools and do artisan work have motivations that are not primarily commercial, although monetary gain obviously has its place. A small farmer views work on the land as an artist does a painting – something apart from the net product. This reduces the potential gross revenue of the village, but it is part of the village spirit.

5. Self-sufficiency The village has low expectations of any outside assistance, be it from government or the private market economy. There is a turning inward – to the family and the community itself. Food production and essential crafts and accompanying services are the anchor of the village economy. Frugality and husbanding of resources are given great importance. Renewable energy resources, such as use of sun, wood, mud, wind are basic. A self-sustaining economy, designed to last for generations, is the goal.

6. Small scale The village is a small enterprise, usually only a few thousand people or less, with modest resources. Some villages have a wide disparity of wealth and land ownership, with "bigness" at one end of the spectrum and "smallness" at the other end, but the totality is small compared to the prevailing scale of urban industrial systems. Villagers recognize the finiteness of their material world; it can accommodate only so many people and so much land. The infinite world is that of the natural order, with all of its mysteries in the realm of the spiritual and the unknown.

These six characteristics are taken from a much larger listing, but they suggest the outlines of a village profile. The fact that these qualities are now being seen and appreciated by people all over the world represents a dramatic shift in our attitude toward the village which offers hope for the building of a sustainable planetary culture.

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