Feminist Distributism Wednesday, Feb 8 2012 


My girlfriend and I have lately had a number of argum…er, lively discussions over the appropriate and complementary roles of men and women in marriage and society as a whole.  Which is, yes, a big topic, and one that can quickly inflame passions, and not always in a good way.  However, our conversations have actually led me to some very interesting conclusions (or at least musings, I don’t believe I can claim to have all this figured out yet) about the shortcoming of both secular feminism and modern capitalism.

Distributism by and large is not known for engaging with women’s issues, or indeed women at all.  A look at a roster of leading distributists past and present will show a concentration of masculine Christian names.  To be fair, a look at any list of leading capitalist, communist, or socialist thinkers may not paint a drastically different picture, but as distributism is supposed to be a truly humanitarian and family-based approach to economic and social life, I think the question, ‘Where are all the women at?’ is a fair one.

That ‘family-based’ qualifier may be where hackles start to rise.  It quickly conjures up images of women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, their lives ‘put on hold’ to care for children while their husband pursues his own career and engages in a variety of enriching social circles (more on this later).  For this reason, secular feminism, or at least prominent strains of it, have largely rejected the importance of motherhood to womanhood, viewing it as an irrelevant (and often unwelcome) characteristic of the sex.  According to this view, women can have children if they wish, but it is understood that they are letting the sisterhood down if they take too much time away from their careers to get pregnant and care for their offspring.  This is valuable time that should be spent clambering up the career ladder, showing those male representatives of the patriarchy that there is nothing they can do that women can’t do better.

This is a dangerous view of life, not to mention relations between the sexes, and thankfully it appears to be increasingly abandoned by mainstream feminist thought.  Fundamentally, it is dangerous because it is about power: who has it, who exercises it, how other groups can get it.  Historically, power seems to be a masculine obsession, to disastrous results; I don’t see why turning it into a feminine one as well is expected to make things better.  It is precisely the complementary interaction between masculine power and feminine mercy that allows for balance, not only at the societal level, but also at that of the individual.  It is not, of course, surprising or unhealthy that men usually display predominantly masculine traits and women feminine ones; but any healthy person, male or female, must balance both tendencies within themselves in order to avoid becoming a sociopath or a pushover (Virginia Woolf has a good insight on this in A Room of One’s Own).

The other night, my girlfriend (who is not, it must be said, the most ardent of monarchists) and I watched the first part of a wonderful BBC documentary on Queen Elizabeth II in honour of her Diamond Jubilee.  While watching footage of her driving service vehicles during the Second World War, firing a rifle in the prone from a raft, addressing the other children displaced by the Blitz over the radio, and generally carrying herself with more dignity than any other public figure in the world (save perhaps Pope Benedict XVI), we both commented to each at the same time how she is in many ways the perfect feminist role model.  She literally is the United Kingdom personified, but she does not wield power in the common sense; she is the colonel-in-chief of a number of British Army regiments, but she has never fought in a war.  However, she is not merely a figurehead, a pretty ornament while the men go about doing the real work.  The documentary shows how the queen works tirelessly, exercising subtle—but perhaps all the more effective for that—influence on behalf of her realm.  She balances in her female person the masculine and feminine, the active and contemplative, the authoritative and nurturing.  This doesn’t mean that she balances them in the same way a king would, suggesting that her sex is irrelevant, but rather that her particular approach to her office as a woman has both masculine and feminine elements.

The reply quickly comes back that this is all well and good for Her Majesty, who lives a sheltered and coddled life soaked in wealth, but it is far from the experience of the middle classes, to say nothing of the poor.  Her life is completely out of touch with the dog-eat-dog world of everyday life in a professional career, especially in times of economic depression.  For those of us living below the royal orbit, it is essential that we, whether men or women, exercise masculine power in order to get ahead.  This means that women cannot really choose to have both a family (at least if they intend to be intimately involved in the raising of their children) and a significant career (sometimes at all, but at the very least not simultaneously).  Children and the family must therefore take a backseat if a woman is to be fulfilled professionally.

But it seems unfair to excessively criticise women for wanting to ‘have it all,’ when it is taken for granted that men will usually have both a career and a family.  It is true that it is a simple biological fact that men cannot conceive, gestate, give birth, or breastfeed a child.  However, while motherhood is a beautiful gift to womanhood, a true non plus ultra, that does not justify falling back on a conception of women as baby-making machines fit only for the domestic affairs of the household.  And this is where the genius of a distributist system comes in.

The reforms needed for our current way of life depend, in fact, on the rediscovery of the feminine.  At a talk given by Sister Damien Marie Savino, FSE, (an assistant professor of environmental science at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston) in Madrid last August, she discussed the importance of the feminine genius in our approach to agriculture.  Technological masculine advances have been essential (I, for one, am very grateful for the invention of the plough), but are not sufficient in themselves.  We must rediscover the feminine process of agriculture and the attendant ability to be receptive to the natural world; a rediscovery of the gestation of the land, the nurturing of livestock, the very seasons and cycles we have been trying to circumvent with our technologies and our agrobusiness conglomerates in order to provide perpetual access to all sorts of foods with no thought to humane treatment of animals or sustainability of crops.

This does not apply only to farming.  If our economic society as a whole was not dependent upon global corporations, but rested primarily on locally produced goods and locally provided services, there would presumably be less pressure to compete, and thus less strain on the labourer.  It’s worth noting that this lack of competition does not inherently mean a decline in quality; a local businessman or -woman who provides shoddy goods or services will have to answer to his or her neighbours for it, and there is nothing to stop someone else in the locality setting up shop to make up for his or her deficiencies.  Furthermore, if those who work in these businesses are also their owners, either individually or collectively, the need to climb career ladders is diminished considerably.  In this sort of climate, the pace of working life becomes much more managable.  Does it mean doing without certain conveniences and amenities for the consumer?  Yes.  But how much time do we actually save with our microwave dinners and how do we use it?  How much stress is relieved by having 24/7 shops burning neon through the night and what do we do to relax?  How much real happiness do we derive from our year-round supply of nectarines and how grateful are we for them?

On the other hand, with these pressures (of managing continent- and globe-spanning corporations, of providing inessential services every day of the week, or of supplying luxury foods in all seasons and across great distances) relieved, everything slows down.  For example, maternity leave suddenly becomes no big deal.  If the family (there’s that word again) owns its venture outright or has a share in it with other workers, the gap left by the woman moving out of the workplace can be filled, for example, by an apprentice who may hope to acquire his or her own share in the venture alongside the family one day or start a venture of his or her own.  If the family owns its own capital, and provides goods and services only locally, the whole affair becomes much more workable and less risky professionally for the woman.

Which brings us back to the issue of the family basis of the proposal.  Even if the family owns its own capital, thus making it easier for the woman to take leave to care for children, wouldn’t this in practice lead to the (alleged) historical arrangement whereby, in practice, ownership really rests with the husband?  Two answers to this challenge are immediately visible.  First, the historical veracity of this picture has been increasingly questioned.  Of course, in the past as now, women have often been subject to pressures imposed by unbalanced masculinity in culture, but more recent waves of feminist historians have been illuminating the extent to which pre-industrial women really did have a say in the government of family affairs both at home and in the workshop, to say nothing of the temporal and spiritual authority wielded by women religious in the Church.  Second, the ‘barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen’ model doesn’t strike me as a vision of a particularly healthy family, precisely because it seems to be lacking a father.  If the husband and father is never participating in the raising of the children, the entire system of a ‘family-based economy’ surely breaks down.  But in truth, is this not much more the case with modern families living in atomistic capitalist societies?  The absent father (in too many cases mother as well), the alienated and disaffected children, the destruction of community ties, is endemic in the industrialised world.  Owning families, on the other hand, are empowered families, both in their male and female members, and this empowerment extends to the community at large.

Ultimately, it seems that the tension between career and biology for women is a product of modern capitalism rather than something inherent to nature.  And this conflict is not exclusive to women, simply more pronounced; just as the suffocating canary warns the miners that the air is running out, so the frustration of women with finding fulfillment in modern professional structures (as a result of their creative sensitivity to correctly ordered natural processes) is actually a signal to men that those very structures are unsustainable for them as well.  The decline of motherhood, both physically and spiritually, is dangerous for society, but the sublimation of fathers into their careers also poses a dire threat, not only to their own health and happiness, but, more importantly, to the development of future generations.  The frenetic pace of modern business is not sympathetic to women who also (properly and necessarily) wish to be mothers, but it is not sympathetic to men who would be fathers either.  Men must be able to devote time to both their labours and their family, and women must be able to put their talents to use both inside and outside the household.  Everything must slow down and reach a human level, for all our good.

Of course such a proposed transformation of the economy to benefit women and families could not happen smoothly overnight, requiring as it does enormous investment in changing attitudes toward the sexes, the economy, and the family.  But that is not to say it is impossible.  Indeed, the deteriorating economic situation and mounting scarcity of natural resources may mean it is necessary if we are to successfully adapt to our changing social and physical environment.  And even if the crisis were not imminent, true freedom (with its attendant responsibilities), harmony, and justice (not only for women, but for all who labour) are aims that should be pursued together, even if it calls for the sacrifice of our luxuries and conveniences.  Finally, all of this must be placed under the rule of charity, yet one more area where our overly masculinsed society could stand to benefit from the influence of the feminine genius.

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Distributism Occupies Wall Street Tuesday, Oct 11 2011 

The folks over at The Distributist Review have put together a wonderful flyer for distribution (sorry) at the Occupy Wall Street protests.  Unfortunately the Atlantic Ocean is a bit wide for me to make it myself, but in case anyone attending stumbles across this blog, I figured I would post a link to the flyer (just for clarity, it is not the same as the Adbusters image below).  Please print it out and share it.

Current dissatisfaction with the system is great, but it has to offer something positive as well as negative.  Hopefully change will come, but we need to encourage that change in the direction of truly humane economics, not another oversized and impersonal solution, whether corporatist or statist.

Schumacher, Part III Friday, Sep 23 2011 

This final post in my Schumacher series is based on the talk given at the seminar at Rhodes House by Ann Pettifor.  Ms Pettifor is an analyst for the Global Financial Initiative, a fellow of the New Economics Foundation, and the director of Advocacy International, as well as a co-founder of the Jubilee 2000 Project. She also correctly predicted the economic crisis brought on by the market collapse of 2008.

Her talk began with an anecdote that reinforced the disconnect between labour and purpose which Simon Trace’s Practical Action works to combat.  However, Ms Pettifor’s example came not from somewhere in the developing world.  Rather, she described the conditions of working in the Australian coal and iron pits.  These pits are made not by creating old fashioned shafts (which have a smaller environmental impact) but are rather large open gashes which are accessed by enormous trucks.  These trucks are sealed and operated by workers who do little more than oversee largely automated processes.  They also operate on a ‘fly-in-fly-out’ basis, meaning that their time in the towns surrounding the pits is limited to the work week, from which they are shuttled back to their homes elsewhere in Australia.  All these factors combine to create a labour population completely alienated from the communities in which it works, and work which is alienated from the labourers who perform it.  Not to mention the environmental damage that is done by such frequent shuttle flights and such large-scale mining operations.

The responsibility for such alienated labour Ms Pettifor placed at the feet of current economic models, particularly for their reliance of consumption on vast scales.  The problem, she claimed, is largely due to our current models’ need for continued consumption on credit, and the excessive faith placed by many policy makers in the Invisible Hand of the market.  Massive consumption creates the licence and need for production on a correspondingly massive scale.  Such production is harmful both to the environment and to people as individuals and in communities.  However, the only way to curb consumption is some form of regulation.

Unfortunately, the panel was running short on time at this point, as I would have liked to have heard Ms Pettifor’s proposals for specific market regulation which would discourage consumption.  When I have time, I intend to thoroughly explore her blogs at Green New Deal Group, Debtonation, and Prime Economics (all of which are also in the links on the left).

The one possibility for establishing moral regulation of the rhythms of the market that she did mention was connected with her work at Jubilee 2000.  Drawing on social codes outlined in the Mosaic Law in Exodus xx 8-10 and Leviticus xxv, she proposed for pauses in our schedule of labour and retail.  First, we might return to forbidding all nonessential work one day of the week.  There really isn’t any need for most 24/7 services, and far from creating more freedom, they often increase the hectic pace of our lives.  Second, we could allow the land to lie fallow for one year out of every seven.  In addition to making agrobusiness unprofitable, this would have incredibly beneficial results for the environment, first and foremost for the replenishment of the nutrients found in the soil.  And finally, every fiftieth year, all debts would be cancelled.  This would prevent the creation of systems of usury that are based on selling packages of debt around the market (such as led to the 2008 collapse).  It would also introduce a higher level of fiscal responsibility at the national level, discouraging situations such as the one in which the United States has found itself recently.  After outlining her Jubilee system, Ms Pettifor remarked, ‘The Sabbath is market regulation; we deregulated the Sabbath.’  Now that’s market regulation that even Bible-thumping Tea Partiers should be able to get behind.

Schumacher, Part II Thursday, Sep 22 2011 

The second session at the E.F. Schumacher seminar was given by Simon Trace, CEO of Practical Action.  First, Mr Trace outlined the ideas that guided Schumacher to found the Intermediate Technology Development Group (as Practical Action was originally named).  Schumacher’s experience studying economics and working as an economic advisor in a number of countries including the United Kingdom, West Germany, Burma, and India led him to discover several unrecognised but related truths.

First, the sort of perpetual growth that many economists throughout the latter half of the twentieth century believed would result from classical liberal market models was impossible.  You simply cannot have infinite growth in a finite system.

This is in large part due to the second truth: that many natural resources are fixed (in practical terms), and our attitude toward them should reflect this.  This is the idea of ‘natural capital.’  Natural resources like fossil fuels must be consumed at rates that are higher than the rate at which they can be replaced.  Therefore we must treat them not as ends to be consumed themselves, but as the source for consumable goods and services.  Natural resources must therefore be cultivated, rather than depleted, in order to continue to supply the economy.

The third truth follows of the preceding two.  The consumption patterns currently exhibited by the United States and Europe may be viable in the short-term, regardless of their long-term inability to be sustainable. However, even in the immediate future, they are completely unsustainable on a global scale.  If our goal is truly to bring the same standard of living that we enjoy in the West to the rest of the world, we will quickly find that the world’s resources cannot carry the weight.  Thus our remaining options are to consign the rest of the world to massive inequality and an even greater burden of poverty as we live luxuriously off of the resources we draw from their societies (the rising tide does not apparently lift all boats; it swamps quite a few) or to bring our own consumption to a sustainable level so we can maintain an acceptable standard of living (a receding tide of material prosperity in the most affluent parts of the world may bring us all to sea level while keeping us off the bottom).  This last point is even more pressing now than it was in Schumacher’s day as we prepare to deal with the rising economic power (and therefore desire for luxuries dependent on scarce natural resources) of societies with massive populations like China and India.

These realisations led Schumacher to a conclusion that remains revolutionary: simple growth as the aim of economic activity is fundamentally wrong.  Instead, our economic, political, and social structures must tackle the person as a whole, including, first and foremost, his spirituality.  This does not mean his creed, but rather the purpose of his life, particularly in this case as it regards labour.

The consequences of this approach to Western aid for the developing world are immense.  In addition to the practical concerns about compatibility with existing infrastructure and sensitivity to alien cultural priorities, this focus on the process in addition to the ends of economic activity challenges the very desirability of introducing highly sophisticated Western labour-saving technologies in order to alleviate global poverty and suffering.  Schumacher instead proposes what he calls ‘intermediate technology,’ though the term ‘appropriate technology’ better reflects his meaning and is now more widely used.  The term is highly adaptable, which is part of the purpose of the idea.  It encompasses three principles: it should be low in cost so as to be affordable to virtually everyone in the societies which it serves; it should be human in scale, rather than requiring enormous amounts of automated labour; and it must accommodate man’s inherent need for creativity.  This is the antidote to the soul-numbing mass-production line.

Mr Trace then proceeded to outline the practical reasons for why the need for such technology was so urgent in the developing world, where Practical Action focuses its energies.  Many areas have little or no access to the most basic services, such as clean water or electricity.  There is little opportunity for the establishment of sustainable livelihoods in much of the developing world, where supposed economic opportunities in the cities depopulate the countryside, only to fill the cities with a surplus of unskilled labourers who suffer from unemployment on a massive scale.  Finally, the frequent scarce availability of food, brought on by droughts, floods, wars, or poor ecological and agricultural practice (often encouraged by Western interests) creates famines that further retard the ability to create sustainable livelihoods.

The solution of appropriate technology is designed to counter these problems by meeting the needs of areas in crisis where they are.  It does not require massive outlays of capital, it does not overrun traditional practices thereby alienating those who do and should remain attached to their native culture, and it orients labour toward human ends rather than humans toward the ends of labour.

Mr Trace concluded with a discussion of what Practical Action calls ‘technology justice.’  The principle behind the introduction of technology should not be the growth of consumption but rather the growth in human well-being.  Furthermore, the choices we make regarding technology shape the societies in which we live (we need only look at our own obsession with social networking sites and ‘smart’ mobile devices for evidence of this).  Recognising these two truths, ‘justice’ concerning technology is found, according to Mr Trace, in the right to the use of technology that allows societies to live the life they value, so long as it does not compromise other contemporary or future societies’ ability to do the same.

For the most part, I find this a compelling principle.  However, I do have reservations about definitions of justice that make cavalier rights claims.  Do any of us have a ‘right to technology’ (of any sort) in the same way that we have a right to the freedom of conscience?  Perhaps the bigger issue is how one determines what sort of technology it is that allows a society to live the life that it values.  Thankfully, traditional elements are sometimes strong enough in foreign cultures to attempt to resist the influence of Western priorities.  But the deluge of Western advertising as Western companies try to make inroads into foreign markets undermines this conservatism, and the lure of iPhones and plasma televisions can blot out ancestral heritage and wisdom, as it has largely done in the West.  I’m not sure that I trust purely democratic processes to protect the interests of their societies when sexy advertising backed by American dollars is thrown into the equation.

This flows into my second concern about Mr Trace’s talk.  As Mr Trace acknowledged, Schumacher intended appropriate technology to be a principle applied not only in the developing world, but also in Europe and the United States.  Mr Trace made a very compelling case for the urgency with which the solutions offered by appropriate technology are needed in the developing world.  People are suffering and dying without them.  But so long as all of our energy and resources are being dedicated to implementing appropriate technology in the developing world, it seems to me that we are trying to build the sand castle on the same spot in between each wave of the incoming tide.  Surely so long as the West continues to live in the material luxury that we now enjoy and broadcast it to the rest of the world through television sitcoms and Coca-Cola advertisements, the rest of the world will continue to think of appropriate technologies as stopgap measures that are either a rung on the ladder to the American lifestyle or an appeasement measure intended to keep them from climbing that ladder.  We are basking in comfort and convenience, occasionally thinking it’s a pity that others can’t live like this, while selling the appeal of our material prosperity to who cannot afford it.  But even if (or even when) they could (or can), such a strain on the limited resources that make such prosperity possible (if only for a small percentage of the world for a short period of time) will bring the entire house of cards crashing down.  Therefore, doesn’t there need to be at least equal energy devoted toward implementing appropriate technological solution in the West?  Certainly, it is a more challenging and thankless task; who wants to give up on cheap Wal-Mart or Primark goods that wear out within the year for more expensive, but higher quality and more durable goods made by artisans?  However, I do believe that encouraging and implementing appropriate technology here in Europe and the United States (particularly in the realm of agriculture and encouraging small-holding farms, the need for which is especially dire in the U.S.) is the only way to make appropriate technology sustainable as a philosophy.

When I asked Mr Trace about this concern, he directed me toward several organisations at work in the United Kingdom: the Soil Association, the Centre for Alternative Technology, and the New Economics Foundation.  There is also the E.F. Schumacher Society, and for those interested in work in the developing world, Practical Action. These are all also in the links to the left.

Tomorrow will be a summary of the talk by Ann Pettifor on the imminent relevance of the work and ideas of E.F. Schumacher in light of the current economic crisis.

Schumacher, Part I Wednesday, Sep 21 2011 

This year is the centenary of Ernst Freidrich Schumacher’s birth, and celebrations of his life and work have been consistently in the newspapers and blogs the last several months surrounding his birthday on 16 August.  Rhodes House held a seminar in his honour last Friday, and as my own tribute to him, I would like to do three posts highlighting the talks given by the three panelists: Barbara Wood, Schumacher’s daughter; Simon Trace, CEO of Practical Action; and Ann Pettifor, fellow of the New Economics Foundation and director of Advocacy International.

Mrs Wood’s talk coincided with the reissuing of her biography of her father, entitled Alias Papa: A Life of Fritz Schumacher.  She spoke about her father’s life, particularly his connection with the Rhodes Scholarship.  Schumacher, born in Bonn, was elected in 1930 as one of the first Rhodes Scholars from Germany following the First World War; Mrs Wood listed the qualities expected of Scholars (truthfulness, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness, and fellowship) and described her father as fully possessing all of them.  For much of his life he was an atheist and sympathetic to Marxism.  However, the education that life had in store for him modified these philosophical positions.  After studying at Oxford he spent a year in New York learning about the financial markets.  While in New York, Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, and upon his return to his native land, Schumacher quickly found life intolerable.  He returned to England, but with the advent of war in 1939, found himself an ‘enemy alien’ unable to obtain work except as a farm labourer.

This, Mrs Woods claimed, was the first major educational moment for him.  Initially frustrated with the apparent inefficiencies of traditional farm life, he soon learned their underlying rationale.  Among his chores was a daily numbering of the cattle, which he felt a redundant and silly task.  However, one day his count came up one short.  Upon investigation, he discovered the cow was dead.  When he related this to the farmer, his employer was irate, and demanded to know why Schumacher had not told him that the cow was ill.  This experience demonstrated to Schumacher the importance of seeing the trees amongst the forest; viewing individuals as individuals, not merely as components of a statistical whole.  Individuals, whether livestock or people, had intrinsic value and had to be cared for accordingly.  In this light, the rhythms of traditional farm labour made sense.

Schumacher’s time on the farm was limited, however.  He was sent to an internment camp with other Germans in the United Kingdom.  There he was quickly elected as the leader of the internees.  In this capacity, he found he had to look beyond the exterior in meeting the needs of those under his authority, and recognise them as having complex and unique desires that could not be understood solely in terms of the aggregate.  However, he still believed in the viability of statist solutions to economics problems, and often during the war met and worked with John Maynard Lord Keynes and William Lord Beveridge, despite his status as an ‘enemy alien.’

These lessons were further reinforced while working as an economic advisor to the British Control Commission in the rebuilding of postwar West Germany.  Throwing money at the economic difficulties was not going to provide a solution; the root issues were education, the development of skills, and the encouragement of a proper work ethic and motivation.  In other words, it was about people rather than money (another issue that he presciently appreciated at the time and later with his work on the National Coal Board was the coming fuel crisis, as energy demands increased and natural capital was spent).

His thinking took another leap after a consulting trip to Burma where he realised that the level of human happiness in that country was attached not to their levels of material prosperity, but to their sense of purpose.  Their traditional methods of production imbued their labour with meaning and was united to a deeper understanding of the aim of life.  Economics was not a science with natural laws, it was not set in stone; instead, it involved deep philosophical questions about human spirituality.  Upon returning from Burma, he enthusiastically declared to his friends, ‘I am a Buddhist!’  It was his further work in Asia, particularly in India, that led him to become an advocate for ‘intermediate’ (or ‘appropriate’) technology; Western-imported first-grade technology often is incompatible with local infrastructures or cultural sensitivities to be of practical use to developing societies, thus the urgent material problems of these societies must be met by technology appropriate to their capacity and culture (more on this tomorrow).

The final step that I found particularly interesting with regard to Schumacher’s life (and one which seems understated or completely unknown among Schumacher fans) was his relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.  His new understanding of economics increasingly involved him in broader reading, which included the Church Fathers and Saint Thomas Aquinas.  Both his wife and daughter separately converted to Catholicism, but Schumacher remained officially noncommittal.  However, he was impressed and inspired by papal teaching; not only by social encyclicals such as Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, but also by moral ones, such as Paul VI’s Humanæ vitæ.  Ultimately, though, Schumacher entered the Church not through intellectual persuasion but by observation of practical action.  From Mrs Woods’ biography:

‘Although he was well acquainted with Catholic writers ancient and modern, he knew next to nothing about the actual form of worship in the rites of the Church.  He was fascinated, struck particularly by the reverence with which the priests handled the chalice and the paten after they had distributed Communion, the care with which every vessel was carefully wiped and polished.’

To make a brief editorial comment here, I find this vindication of the evangelical quality of traditional ceremonial particularly striking.  A laissez-faire attitude toward the liturgy (with, for example, only cursory post-communion cleaning of the sacramental vessels or, worse, having lay people do it after Mass in the sacristy while chatting about their days) may suggest that the Church is a friendly, welcoming, and easy-going place where people can feel comfortable (an ecclesiology that I think is pretty flawed), but it certainly does not suggest that we are serious about what we say we believe.  Care and attention to the cleaning of the chalice and paten and the reverence shown to the Blessed Sacrament throughout liturgical services demonstrates to the world the fact that this is not a pretty figurative or metaphorical practice divorced from reality; instead the transubstantiation that occurs during the consecration has practical consequences for the way we handle the physical objects with which the Sacrament comes into contact.

At any rate, in 1971 Schumacher was received into the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, making, in his words, ‘legal a long-standing illicit love affair’.  Two years later he published the best-selling Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, which predicted many of the troubles in which we currently find ourselves and some which we will shortly have to face.  It is a foundational text for anyone interested in how economics must relate to human well-being in the modern world.  Schumacher died in 1977, and his favourite of his works, A Guide for the Perplexed, was published in that year.  His posthumous Good Work (1979) is also an important book.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss the ongoing work being done by Practical Action, an organisation founded by Schumacher (as the Intermediate Technology Development Group) during his lifetime, and how the work he advocated continues to have relevance.  But quite apart from the practical applications of his ideas, Schumacher’s contributions to economics are invaluable to modern distributism and an ethical approach to the field generally.  Mrs Woods quoted Chief Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks at the end of her talk as saying, ‘Science takes things apart to find out how they work, religion puts them together to find out what they mean.’  Since the latter half of the last century, we have owed a great debt to E.F. Schumacher for reclaiming economics from the scientists and returning it to the sphere of moral action.

Civilisation Without Work Thursday, Sep 8 2011 

I just watched Gone with the Wind for the first time the other night.  Despite some elements that make one cringe in the post-civil rights movement era and a body count to rival most horror films (I came away from the film feeling that association with Scarlett O’Hara was a pretty sure death sentence), it really is a great piece of cinema, both conceptually and technically.

The depictions of the changing South in film are particularly interesting in terms of the light they shed on the connection between work and human happiness (or, more directly, unhappiness).  While the postwar scenes of the film show a fairly standard criticism of the dehumanising effects of capitalism in Scarlett’s quest for financial security, the romanticised picture of antebellum Georgia filled with happy darkies and white aristocracy may seem to accord better with an agricultural and localised ideal.  Of course, it draws the obvious criticism that the slavery upon which it depends is entirely incompatible with preserving the dignity of the human person.  But I found myself feeling frustrated with Scarlett and Ashleigh’s nostalgic pining for the days before Sherman’s March and Reconstruction for another (though not unrelated) reason as well.

I make no defence for Yankee policy during the War Between the States; total war against civilian populations, like slavery, is an absolute evil.  However, while I sympathise with those small-holding farmers who had their crops and homes burned and their livestock stolen by Union armies, it is harder to feel sorry for those plantation owners who similarly suffered, but had owned five hundred slaves to work their fields.  Of course the theft or destruction of personal property is always wrong, regardless of whether it is suffered by rich or poor, but as feelings go, I find it hard to cry for the latter.  In addition to the intrinsic injustice of slavery (particularly racial slavery), Ashleigh and Scarlett belonged to a class that had idealised the complete transcendence of work.  Even if he owned two or three slaves, a normal Southern farmer would still have worked alongside those slaves in the fields.  But Gone with the Wind celebrates a particular class that was freed from all work by depending on the agricultural labour of others (not to mention the fact that this class also thrived by profiting from a monoculture of cotton that would drain the soil of its diversity of nutrients).  When Ashleigh later objects to Scarlett’s use of convict labour in the sawmill (the only all-white chain gang I think I’ve ever seen), his argument that he doesn’t want to profit from the sweat of others sounds terribly hollow, even when he justifies his position by naïvely claiming that the white aristocracy never mistreated their slaves.

In medieval social theory, civilisation was composed of three interdependent classes: the clergy, who provided the sacraments, preserved learning, and prayed for the souls of society; the knights, who defended society from external threats and kept the domestic peace; and the peasants, who worked the land to provide food for society.  Obviously this picture needs to be heavily problematised before it bears much correspondence with historical reality, and even in practice the lines between the three orders were often blurred; a knight would work in his manor fields as a monk would in his monastery garden, peasants fought on the battlefield and bishops occasionally led armies.  The essential point, however, is that each class in theory contributes to the well-being of the other two, creating a community that simultaneously fosters solidarity while preserving diversity.  I’m not suggesting that we should aspire to restore this medieval model.  But for a society that (at least in retrospect) drew so heavily on a romantic view of the Middle Ages and self-consciously saw itself as the inheritor of that past civilisation’s values, its failure to live up to its basic theory of social cohesion is a just criticism.  The plantation class of the  antebellum American South was not Camelot (as much as it may have aspired to be) because it failed to see the a priori value of work.  Instead, it idealised a life of indolence based on the sweat of others as the apogee of civilisation.  As a result, the virtue of its chivalry was tarnished and hypocritical, prone to pettiness and bravado.  And in the end, the decadence exhibited in the scene where young slave girls fan the Southern belles as they nap during the afternoon of the Wilkes’ barbecue resembles the last days of Rome before divine judgement permits Sherman’s barbarians to bring the pillars of the whole hedonistic edifice crashing down around them.

As a closing note, I found myself cringing when Scarlett shakes her fist at the sky and vows to ‘never go hungry again.’  Upon reflection I realised that this was because it was only when she was starving that she really became a sympathetic and morally reforming character.  With Tara in ruins and her family depending upon her, she sets herself to actually work the land herself for the direct benefit of those she loves.  When her lumber business begins to make money, the horse begins to precede the cart, and she loses sight of the true selflessness she found in the Yankees’ wake in her quest for profit and comfort.  Thus the fantastic end of the film, where she decides to return to Tara, does offer some sliver of hope: that by returning to the land and taking real responsibility for it, she may reconnect with the family which she has forgotten and thus rediscover with what it is that truly makes her human.

Two Archbishops and the Big Society Sunday, Jun 12 2011 

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, wrote the leader for The New Statesman, in which he questioned the government’s implementation of its devolution initiative, touted as ‘The Big Society.’  Meanwhile, to much less attention, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster addressed the Caritas Network Conference at Saint Mary’s College, Twickenham.  The first half of his address also tackled the progress made by the Big Society thus far.  His view of the government’s policies was much more forgiving, and even led the American-based Catholic News Agency to portray the two events as a tête-à-tête between the two archbishops.

This characterisation seems a bit unfair.  Dr Williams seems in fact almost to take it for granted that an increasing focus on local politics is on the horizon, and even goes so far as to say that he doesn’t ‘think that the government’s commitment to localism and devolved power is simply a cynical walking-away from the problem’ of the financial strain on welfare services.  Archbishop Vincent echoes this belief in the good faith of the government and applauds the opportunities the Big Society offers for stronger social cohesion and ‘local initiative and enterprise.’  Even more important than the political liberty promised by local governance, it also facilitates the fostering of real, practical community.  All good stuff.

However, the criticisms raised by both men are necessary ones.  Dr Williams frames his concerns in strong and practical terms, primarily centred around the issues of healthcare and education.  With regard to the wider concerns of devolution, he makes a very important point:

The uncomfortable truth is that, while grass-roots initiatives and local mutualism are to be found flourishing in a great many places, they have been weakened by several decades of cultural fragmentation. The old syndicalist and co-operative traditions cannot be reinvented overnight and, in some areas, they have to be invented for the first time.

Archbishop Vincent also worries that as far as the question of localism is conceived, either positively or negatively, solely in terms of the state’s agency, it neglects the real purpose of the initiative: to foster empowerment and responsibility among local communities.  He points out that ‘the growth of subsidiarity cannot be achieved simply by the withdrawal of the state. It requires intelligent capacity-building to reduce dependency, and the creation of conditions for the sustained flourishing of local initiative.’

One of the largest obstacles to achieving true localised communitarian liberty is its sloppy implementation by well-intentioned governments.  This is the very thing that threatens to make the idea ‘painfully stale.’  While I think Dr Williams has less faith than I do in the long-term ability of a localised, distributist community to sustain itself with minimal interference by a centralised state, his observations are perfectly valid in the short-term.  Even if the Conservatives had won a majority in last year’s election, giving Philip Blond and his Red Tories a mandate to fully implement their agenda, the transformation into a localised and federalised state could never be achieved immediately.  Over a half-century’s acclimatisation to the welfare state cannot be discarded overnight.  If the coalition (or at least the Conservative Party) is honest and serious about creating lasting change to the way political responsibility is handled in this country, and not just hoping to save the government money by allowing numerous public services to be privatised by large corporations, it needs to hand power back to the people in a measured and feasible way.  The entire structure cannot be dismantled at once, otherwise the community initiatives that the programme is supposed to foster will be drowned in the ensuing chaos even before getting a chance to breathe.  The very people that the return to local empowerment is supposed to raise up—the poor—will instead suffer the most.  The transition to a sustainable communitarian society will take time, but I promise you, David Cameron, it will be worth it in the end.

On a brighter note, the really exciting thing about both of these comments is that these men are taking the advent of localism to political discourse seriously.  Obviously, subsidiarity is integral to Catholic social teaching, but as it is so rarely practiced in modern democratic states, it can be all too easy to see it as a quaint ideal that we’ll never really reach and therefore should give little attention.  Dr Williams’ challenge to the political left to give us an idea of what their ‘version of localism might look like’ is also very exciting.  If the issue of true political subsidiarity can transcend party divides, we are on a very promising course indeed.  The very fact that Archbishop Vincent’s talk was given to an delegation from Caritas is also encouraging, as it shows that the extrapolitical organisations (e.g. the Church) necessary to make devolved power possible are getting involved.  The poor will outlive the welfare state, and they will still need care; the fact that community charities seem to be stepping up to the challenge that devolution places before them is a very good sign.  So despite the questionable implementation of the Big Society by the Conservatives thus far, the extent to which its principles seem to have penetrated into discourse about the future are enough to give me hope that subsidiarity and localism might survive the present government.

Quo vadimus? Thursday, Jun 9 2011 

The poet, prophet, and farmer Wendell Berry was once participating in a debate with Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, when a heckler from the audience called out to him, ‘You can’t go back in time!’  Berry’s response came back: ‘I’m not talking about going back in time.  I’m talking about going back in character.’

I’ve written a short manifesto about the purpose of this blog under ‘Revolution within Tradition.’  It is almost certain to change over time as I refine my own ideas about how this revolution should go, and that refinement is something I ask all of you, dear readers, to participate in.

I am fully aware of the paradox that the rash of neoLuddite and localist bloggers bewailing modernity and technology seems to present.  However, I think that websites like Front Porch Republic (to which this blog owes a massive debt; even that Wendell Berry anecdote comes from a Jason Peters article) inherently present an important point: as much as I sometimes would like to go around smashing all the looms in which we’ve ensnared ourselves, we cannot reject all developments out of hand.  We are not preparing a reaction, we are preparing a revolution.

Yes, the idea of people extolling the virtues of staying at home and eating and buying local through the medium of Internet forums does seem contradictory, but the opportunity it presents is invaluable.  Through this, we are able to share information and ideas about our individual observations and reflections on one of the few universal political, economic, and social principles: subsidiarity.

And so, ironically, we must come together in support of our attempts to cultivate our own local communities and their cultures.  Even more ironically (in light of all the counterproductive harm it also does) the Internet offers a wonderful tool for this.  This is why I do invite any input that dedicated readers or passers-by may have on the revolution we are introducing to rebuild a shattered world.

My own perspective, for full disclosure, is that of a Roman Catholic (and a convert: the worst kind) American living in England (yes, add that to the list of localist hypocrisies).  My primary concern is with the traditions and cultures of the West (meaning Europe and its colonial offspring in North America and Australia) that are rapidly being lost in the midst of rising secularism and dependence on technology.  These aren’t necessarily things that have been lost in the last fifty years, or even in the last two hundred (I, for one, would count Catholicism as being among them).  However, the pace is certainly increasing, and in our globalising world, these problems (many of which the West has spawned) are no longer exclusive to the Western sphere.  Thoughts from those with other backgrounds trying to preserve their own heritages in the face of modernisation are very welcome as well.

Ultimately, I hope this will be a thoughtful and fruitful exploration; for myself, but for you as well.  The world is going to look very different by the end of our lives; I hope we can make it for the better, starting with our own patch of earth.