Reimagining American Community

n the face of an economic collapse, massive inequality, the ascension of totalizing political ideologies (extreme as they were trendy), Herbert Agar  (1897-1981) made the historical case that only a widespread distribution of political and economic power could safely carry America out of the Great Depression. Among advocates for decentralist alternatives to the New Deal, Agar stands out as a thinker who reminds us to examine our assumptions in light of historical facts, who insists that we accept nothing less than an ownership society, and who shows us how to forge community-minded coalitions that push back against state and market excesses.

Educated at Princeton, Agar began his writing career as a poet and literary critic who called for visionary and prophetic verse that would confront materialism endemic in the Twenties. It was not until he moved to England, after embarking on a career in journalism, that he clearly recognized the historical and economic causes of the troubling societal shifts he witnessed amid the “Coolidge prosperity.” Persuaded by the sharp analysis of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, Agar contributed to G.K.’s Weekly in the early Thirties and applied the insights he learned there to his critical take on the American Presidency, The People’s Choice (1933), a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history that attracted the attention of congruous American writers.

Allen Tate, one such writer, told Donald Davidson that Agar “is a gift from the Gods. He is a born public figure; he is intelligent; and he is with us to the hilt. He is just what we needed. He is a leader.” After the publication of Land of the Free (1935), such claims proved prophetic, and decentralists rallied around their new leader in his efforts to convince the cooperative, agrarian, and distributist movements that they must make common cause in order to provide a plausible alternative to the power aggrandizing forces of monopoly capitalism, fascism, and communism. Together, Agar and Tate edited Who Owns America (1936), an anthology which defended the American idea against those would see our citizenry grow dependent on corporate and state centralizers.

This attempt to forge a decentralist coalition culminated in the launch of Free America (1937), a magazine exploring culture and politics with the conviction that “without economic democracy there can be neither social nor political democracy.” Agar believed that with the help of  Allen Tate, Bertram Fowler,  Ralph Borsodi, and Dorothy Day he could convince a large enough voting block that the New Deal must restore productive property and participatory government.  He understood that Americans faced a choice, a choice as important now as it was then: “If Americans have come to believe that a wage is the same thing as freedom; if they prefer such a wage, with its appearance of security, to the obvious danger and responsibilities of ownership, then they cannot be saved from the servitude which awaits them.”




About the Author
Clint Collister resides in Michigan, studies literature, and struggles with small talk.