Sunday, December 28, 2008

Distributionism explored

Hilairy Belloc (left) never became a poster boy for cigarettes as his friend and colaborator G. K. Chesterton (right) was to.  

In my last post I briefly mentioned distributionism, and notes the influence of distributionism on the anti-nuclear movement. Distributionism was a radical interpretation of a charter document De Rerum Novarum issued by Pope Leo in 1891. De Rerum Novarum was a significant attempt by the Catholic Church to come to terms with modern society while at the same time promoting social reforms that were viewed by the church as demanded by its moral teachings. The moral teachings of the Catholic Church were filtered through the thought of the Medieval Catholic philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. Thus De Rerum Novarum did not find itself at peace with the modernity of modern society, or with the modern social order.

De Rerum Novarum depicted the plight of the poor in late 19th century Europe, and demanded justice for them. It supported the right of workers to organize labor unions, and demanded that owners pay their workers fair wages:
"Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice".
Distributive justice requires that
all citizens, without exception, are obliged to contribute something to the sum-total common goods, some share of which naturally goes back to each individual,
Yet what Pope Leo XIII gave with his right hand. Thus jusitice required workers to not disrupt social harmony as they sought a better life for themselves and their families.
The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. . . it (is) ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.
But De Rerum Novarum went far beyond promoting what it viewed as a harmonious relationship between workers and owners in modern society. It offered an attempt to base an economic theory on the concept of distributive justice. Here we encounter a way that De Rerum Novarum comes into direct conflict with the modern because in modern thought there is a conceptual seperation between the economic order and the moral order. In modern society there is no one unifying theory of the just, and so communities do not attempt to imposes ethical obligations on their members, rather they filter their diverse interpretation of the ethical though a series of laws that imposes minimal aproximate standards of the ethical on their members. De Rerum Novarum went well beyound the modern, by laying out a theory of economic justice that drew on the very unmodern philosoply of Thomas Aquinas.

De Rerum Novarum assumes a world in which their are two classes, the rich and the poor. Both have obligations to the other. The rich are obliged to transfer some of their wealth to the poor as charity. The poor are obliged to not raise a ruckus if the righ do not prove to be as generous as they would wish.

De Rerum Novarum suggests that if a worker
saves something by restricting expenditures and invests his savings in a piece of land in order to keep the fruit of his thrift more safe, a holding of this kind is certainly nothing else than his wage under a different form; and on this account land which the worker thus buys is necessarily under his full control as much as the wage which he earned by his labor.
The right to own land and enjoy its fruits is a major concern of De Rerum Novarum.
The land, surely, that has been worked by the hand and the art of the tiller greatly changes in aspect. The wilderness is made fruitful; the barren field, fertile. But those things through which the soil has been improved so inhere in the soil and are so thoroughly intermingled with it, that they are for the most part quite inseparable from it. And, after all, would justice permit anyone to own and enjoy that upon which another has toiled? As effects follow the cause producing them, so it is just that the fruit of labor belongs precisely to those who have performed the labor.

Rightly therefore, the human race as a whole, moved in no wise by the dissenting opinions of a few, and observing nature carefully, has found in the law of nature itself the basis of the distribution of goods, and, by the practice of all ages, has consecrated private possession as something best adapted to man's nature and to peaceful and tranquil living together. Now civil laws, which, when just, derive their power from the natural law itself, confirm and, even by the use of force, protect this right of which we speak. -- And this same right has been sanctioned by the authority of the divine law, which forbids us most strictly even to desire what belongs to another. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his house, nor his field, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is his."
What Distributionism did was to expand the connection which Leo XIII made between social justice and property ownership, by focusing the land owning rights of workers on farming. The Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc pushed De Rerum Novarum to a more radical view as Raymond Williams explained in "Culture and Society":
Belloc's argument is that capitalism as a system is breaking down, and that this is to be welcomed. A society in which a minority owns and controls the means of production, while the majority are reduced to proletarian status, is not only wrong but unstable. Belloc sees it breaking down in two ways — on the one hand into State action for welfare (which pure capitalism cannot embody); on the other hand into monopoly and the restraint of trade. There are only two alternatives to this system: socialism, which Belloc calls collectivism; and the redistribution of property on a significant scale, which Belloc calls distributivism.
Belloc worked in close intellectual collaboration with the better known writer G.K. Chesterton., but is regarded as laying the theoretical foundations for Distributionism.  In a number of respects Belloc's thinking paralleled Marxism .   He certainly held capitalism in low regard: 
"The Capitalist state breeds a Collectivist theory which in action produces the Servile State".
"..a collectivist solution is the easiest for a Capitalist state to aim at, and yet, in the very act of attempting collectivism, the servitude of the many results and the confirmation of the present privilege of the few?.
Distributionism thus went far beyond Pope Leo in focusing on the localization as opposed to the centralized as optimal.  Thus individuals made better decisions for themselves than large organizations could.  Small organizations were better equipped to make decisions than large organizations.  Belloc and Chesterton also advocated the self sufficiency of families, even to the extent of growing their own food. They supported coops as opposed to corporations, and guilds as opposed to unions. The supported eliminating the role of the middle man in economic transactions. They opposed government welfare programs and social security schemes. They did not like the charging of interest on loans.

Distributionism is clearly reactionary, and far less modern even than De Rerum Novarum. It views the just society as a community of artisans, small business people, and farmers. The ideal business is a family business and the ideal farm a family farm.

The notion that nothing good can come from large organizations including the state was not, however, driven by Balloc and Chesterton to its logical conclusion in the area of religion.  The equivalent of Distributionism in religion is the principle of congregational autonomy, a principle that utterly undercuts the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  

Afterword: I have diverted from my usual course on Nuclear Green because I am trying to untangle some of the intellectual roots  of the anti-nuclear movement, and in particular of Amory Lovins' anti-nuclear belief system.  I intend to unpack the relationship between Distributionism and Lovins' energy theory.  I will also intend to look at the relationship between Distributionism and anti-Capitalism in the the Green movement, and in the "relocalization" movement.    


back40 said...

Nuclear batteries.

Marcel F. Williams said...

Remember those old SciFi films from the 1950's where all types of monsters and terrible phenomena resulted from radiation and radioactive material. Most Americans had already been introduced to radiation in a horrific manner after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The SciFi films of the 50's only perpetuated that fear as did television when these films were later shown on the TV networks during the 1960s.

There was a frequent theme in these films 'that there are some things in nature that scientist really shouldn't fool around with' or we might get Godzilla, giant ants, giant people or shrinking men, etc.

So any incidents, no matter how minor, involving nuclear energy or material, revives those media perpetuated fears even though the human species has always existed in a naturally radioactive environment and are probably headed towards an even more radioactive environment in the the new frontier of space.

Marcel F. Williams

Anonymous said...

At the bottom of all considerations in the social organization of any group of people most purely reflected by and organized in the state is the exercise of power. Who has it, who doesn’t, and how the tools and the levers of power are exercised by the people at the top to control and direct society to the benefit of that ruling elite.

The exercise of power is never well ordered. There is always roiling tension, inner resistance, and convoluted counter flow that complicates and obscures the motivations and goals of individuals, sub-groups, classes, and organizations in society. Truly understanding the history, evolution, methods, procedures, and results of the projections of power is pervasive and universally attempted but seldom achieved; and when achieved quickly lost to the dustbin of history.

Power is and evolutionary force that directs the destiny of man and his societies and as such is constantly changing to adapt to the new situation in a eternal battle of good and evil in the world. The political condition is a quantum phenomenon that only becomes apparent as a probability summed over the path of all possible outcomes. To find the fundamental equation for all that can be is a noble but a daunting task reserved for only those who approach its study with no preconceptions and are totally open to all possibility. Even then, they will have only a brief and fleeting look at its course as it quickly recedes into the growing darkness of the uncertain future. To observe this quantum reality is to change it, to understand it in all it complexity is reserved only to the angels.


Anonymous said...

@ Marcel F. Williams -

Please allow me to put into perspective the background and history of the life and times of mid century America to add so small degree of perspective to your thesis.

A political movement oftentimes resorts to the motivating effects of fear in their pursuit of their goals. Being the mover most potent in political thought, the use of fear has become a high art in political activity at every level of discourse.

In the 50’s and 60’s there was invented the concept of the ‘Missal Gap’ to move the country and replace the political regime that had saved the world from the Nazi menace. The Kennedy political machine revised and extended the fear tactic begun by the Truman administration to motivate the American politic to gird themselves and the country against the new menace; Soviet Communism. In fact, America had many more planes, A-bombs, and missiles than the Russians and the Kennedy administration new it.

But the fear in that this line of propaganda engendered was very effective and had many other uses which included the excuse to test with abandon Atomic and later Hydrogen weapons of mass destruction at the expense of the general health and welfare of the world at large.

Patriotic citizens in the arts took it upon themselves to use and expand the fear campaign to reap profit at the box office in the process to turn the Russians into the new boggymen.

But as it always happens, a counter reaction set in and a reactionary fear campaign took root. And as it always happens, the fear campaign opposing nuclear power grew to include commercial nuclear power production. The green movement was initially a progressive movement that sprung up in reaction to the conservative political activities of the government at that time. The entertainment business naturally embraced the propaganda line to expand and extend the themes of nuclear reaction.

Thus, the green movement came into being and was nourished in this environment and it uses to this day the fear of nuclear power that was useful to establish itself as the main means to nourish it propaganda efforts wide and diverse as they have become. And to this day they cannot or will not distinguish between the old and dead phantoms of the past bygone era of fear and the new rebirth of the revitalized and much needed renaissance of the current nuclear revival movement. Such is the legacy of all those reruns on TV and in books, on DVD and on BlueRay, in video games in the myriad and sundry other venues of our media culture that continue to poison the minds and hearts of the young to the pressing needs that are required for our world to survive.



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