Down on the Ground with the Counterrevolution

By George Sibley

Two months ago here, I gave a fast 250-year-revisionist overview of a two-Americas perspective on our nation’s history, positing that, from the mid-18th century on, the occupation of the continent by white Europeans was not the unfolding of some common vision of a Manifest Destiny; it was instead a contention between two contrasting cultural visions for America.

On one side were the well-financed avatars of the Anglo-European Industrial Revolution – the real American Revolution. On the other side were the impoverished refugees from the creative destruction the Revolution imposed on traditional medieval agrarian societies; they nurtured a counterrevolutionary vision, vaguely articulated and partly nostalgic, of free and independent agricultural landholders in locally sufficient communities sustaining a democratic grassroots alternative to the centralizing topdown Industrial Revolution. This dream’s only political viability lay in America, with Thomas Jefferson’s “immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman” – if the dreamer could get there.

In absolute terms of victory or defeat, the outcome of this cultural conflict was inevitable; the Industrial Revolution came with all the economic and political energy of Europe and England backing it. It also probably had the natural history of the species on its side. Despite the episodic ravages of global plagues, the human population had continued its post-Ice Age expansion, and new systems for feeding, clothing, sheltering and otherwise organizing the expanding human populations had to develop, to replace the inadequate medieval agrarianism. Urbanization and the mass industrial organization of human activity was one set of answers that sort of worked, creating today a dominant mainstream culture of ever-growing megacities – where else would we put the people? – organized around increasingly efficient industrial systems, new technologies and the management of masses by specialized elites. This has worked well enough for a couple of hundred years, but with a growing backlog of unanticipated consequences.

Does this mean that the American agrarian counterrevolution just disappeared, as it retreated westward, trying to stay free of the overwhelming webs of urban-industrial transportation, finance and communication?

In Central Colorado, you can answer that question by looking at the green valleys around you. Every mountain-valley ranch in its third, fourth or fifth generation with the same family harbors a glowing coal of the American counterrevolution, whether the landholders would state it that way or not (probably not). But industrial economists just shake their heads when analyzing the marginal economic viability of high-country ranches, whose operators have huge winter feed production expenses on top of the regular expenses of stock growing.

But standard urban-industrial economic reductionism doesn’t describe or explain everything under the sun, and like the bumblebee who keeps flying despite aerodynamic evidence that he can’t, the high-country rancher keeps on ranching despite the marginal economics. He isn’t heir just to ancestral homesteaded land; he’s also heir to a way of life, a set of cultural ideas only partly unrealized – and even less articulated now, given the invasion of post-urbanites like me, and urban-industrial media that only report on what the urban-industrial explainers understand. High-country ranchers are heirs to an unrealized cultural idea that would, if ever realized, have its own economic system, probably one kinder and gentler to the planet than the economic system driving the Industrial Revolution; there is evidence of this in the beautiful valley fields that are as vital now as they were 150 years ago when ancestors started laying the foundation for that unrealized other America.

Why bring this – what some might consider an historical footnote – up now? Because it is important to understand what is happening here today, water being the example, of course. But as Wayne Aspinall said, “touch water and you touch all.”

We need to remember today that 120-150 years ago the counterrevolutionaries in the west actually won some significant victories against the increasingly overbearing Industrial Revolution. The industrializers were gaining power on most fronts during the post-war decades (1865-1900); the railroads and big banks had captured most of the agricultural sector for industrial production – a necessary capture in order to keep food, energy and other raw resources flowing to the cities. More ominously, the new megaperson of the Revolution, the private limited-liability corporation, was lurching into its Frankensteinian personhood during those decades.

But the farmers – including a lot of angry war vets – answered those revolutionary strategies with the Grange movement that was originally a farmer educational program. It expanded to include politics and economics, organizing not only to elect legislators tough enough to regulate the railroads and banks, but also organizing co-ops for everything from marketing their own production to manufacturing their own tractors and other equipment. Not all of that succeeded against the wealth controlled by the revolutionaries, but it certainly threw enough of a scare to get the capitalists howling for protection from communism.


here the counterrevolutionaries had their biggest victory, though, was with water in the dry lands. In California and Nevada (Forty-niners), then Colorado (Fifty-niners), the prospector-miners, the early farmers feeding and fueling them, and others who had not yet found their America were down on the ground figuring out the use of water in water-scarce lands before any law was in place to tell them that it should all belong to the Industrial Revolution like everything else.

So they evolved new laws for the use of water in water-scarce lands that the Grangers made sure favored the counterrevolution. Since the land was unusable without water applied, they abandoned the riparian water law common to the humid east, England and Europe, whereby all rights to use the water of a stream went to riparian landowners (owners of the stream’s banks). Instead, in keeping with the counterrevolutionary idea, they tried to make access to the essential union of land and water as universal as possible. Without the space here to go into detail,* this involved several important concepts that the Grangers made sure got incorporated into the 1876 Colorado Constitution:

All the water belongs to the people of Colorado. Not to the State of Colorado but to the public – a distinction that may or may not have a true difference, when the question is called someday. But it eliminated the idea that the ownership of water went to the highest bidder and kept it democratically accessible in a way that gave anyone’s sweat equity a chance against money capital.

Individuals (including the Frankenstein corporations) could appropriate the use of the people’s water – but they could only appropriate what they could actually put to beneficial use (default-defined as any use that produced some human economic benefit). This denied the right of appropriation to that scourge of the Industrial Revolution, the speculator who got in on the ground floor by cheaply buying up the resources he would later sell dear to the suckers at a profit.

The right to divert available water from a stream can never be denied – even if it meant that the diverter had to dig a ditch across a riparian landowner’s land to irrigate land at a distance from the stream. The new diverter would have to pay the riparian owner for the land he appropriated for his ditch, at rates set by the local County Commissioners. But the right to so divert could not be denied.

There were other points in the new laws that became part of the Colorado State Constitution in 1876. The essence was this: the counterrevolutionaries managed to create a cultural environment that favored the individual or family who just wanted enough land and water to make a productive home, and gave nothing to the speculators trying to lock up resources on behalf of the revolution.

That has, however, resulted in a situation today in which farmers and ranchers, less than five percent of Colorado’s people but spread over most of the state’s land, own the right to use 86 percent of Colorado’s water, while the massed armies of the Industrial Revolution in the great and growing cities, 87 percent of the people, make do with seven percent of the water – but are going to be needing more by mid-century for new population.

The outcome here is probably inevitable: the cities will get the water they need, the law will be changed, the revolution always gets its way. And the water will come from agriculture because there is simply no other place to get it. But how will it be done?

The Colorado Water Plan – not so much a plan as a compiling of strategies for anticipating proactively what we’d otherwise just be reacting to, as usual – actually tries to set up a dialogue between the minority that owns the use of most of the people’s water, and the majority that is going to need some of that water (maybe 15 percent of it?) over the coming several decades.

History suggests that the counterrevolutionaries have reason to be suspicious of this invitation to negotiate – especially knowing that, in the end, the cities can probably come take what they need through eminent domain. But I hope that the Spirit of ‘76 still glows in those coals that have been carried forward through the heyday of the dominant Industrial Revolution (now in trouble on many fronts), and that the long-quiescent counterrevolutionaries might speak up, toward the creative synthesis that would finally be the one true America. Dream on; why not?

* David Schorr has laid out the whole story of the agrarian counterrevolution in Colorado history, in The Colorado Doctrine: Water Rights, Corporations, and Distributive Justice on the American Frontier.

George Sibley lives and writes in the Central Colorado headwaters, one home of the American Counterrevolution.