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.

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Ten Sunday, Sep 11 2011 

There are many intelligent and unintelligent things to be said today to mark the tenth anniversary of the day the sky fell in, and I’ve read a lot of both.  I’m afraid my own intellect isn’t equal to the task of writing a profound analysis of the past ten years and what it has meant to our country.  I’ve included two links in this post that I thought did a very good job of that.  I would, however, like to write a bit about what the past ten years have meant to me.

I remember being fourteen, sitting in my American history class watching black smoke billow out of the World Trade Center on television.  When the towers collapsed, they collapsed over and over again, like a scene from an action thriller movie on replay.  I had been conscious over the past several years that my generation, being born only shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, was living after the end of history.  Suddenly I had been dramatically proved wrong.  I remember feeling not so much scared as increasingly angry, desperate to strike out at someone, whoever had done this to us.

I remember being utterly convinced that the war in Afghanistan was the correct course of action.  I became determined to join the Army, continuing a romantic desire that had preceded the attacks, now given a significant purpose by our nation’s newly discovered defensive posture.  I remember supporting the drive to invade Iraq, even while having unshakeable premonitions that all would not go as smoothly as the administration claimed it would and as many of my good friends went to the protest in Washington.  I remember voting to reelect President George W. Bush, hanging on to the belief that the reasons given for our intervention in Iraq were legitimate for as long as (perhaps longer than) was reasonably possible.

I remember seeing the wars drag on for year after year, watching friends from school go overseas, eyeing the future soberly from the barracks of my military university, while the society, the culture of the United States didn’t change.  On furlough at home I would sit in traffic behind sport utility vehicles with ‘Support our Troops’ bumper stickers and realise that my reasons for joining the Army were changing.  As my faith and conviction in the ideology underpinning American foreign policy faded, I discovered that my circumstances (being blessed with living on the right side of the school district boundary, a family financial position which left me with options for the future beyond flipping burgers or enlisting) and choices (supporting the wars and voting for the Bush administration’s second term) had imposed obligations upon me: I could not—and did not want to—wash my hands of it, say I’d changed my mind, that I was wrong about America’s position and role in the world and therefore free of responsibility for the decisions I had made and the positions I had supported.  If I was angry that American society showed no evidence that it was sending young men and women to die or be wounded while killing or wounding others for eight years, I then had a responsibility to be involved myself.

I remember watching the economy crash, realising that this was the evidence of the strain brought on my our society’s refusal to acknowledge the costs of the war.  Alongside this was the revelation that things will not be better for me and my generation materially than they were for my parents’; indeed, there was very little (now no) chance they would even stay level.  I remember voting for Barack Obama, despite my reservations about his messianic campaign and my deep differences with elements of his philosophy, because I hoped he would correct the worst abuses of the Bush years, particularly in regards to foreign policy (and because the alternative had tapped a completely unqualified vice-presidential candidate that had to be stopped).  Of course, those hopes have been massively disappointed, as the Obama administration has continued the wars, bombed Libya, and expanded the erosion of civil liberties in the name of security from a vague threat that despite its purported omnipresence and omnipotence has been unable to make any attack (even those in Spain and England, disastrous as they were) on the scale of what happened that morning ten years ago.

And I remember commissioning with my class.  My oath-taking ceremony complicated by the fact that I knew that I would be going to England for at least two years before taking active service while my friends would be off to foreign lands within months.  And watching over the past two years as my classmates have gone on deployments while I sit peacefully in the ivory tower, thinking to myself: what happened to those obligations you felt you had? as the reckless economic and foreign policies of the United States continue with no clear end in sight.

To bring this tortured, excessively personal post to a close, I guess my feelings as we reach this milestone anniversary look something like this:  Maybe the terrorists were smarter than we ever gave them credit for.  Maybe by striking back at them, by trying to eradicate them from the planet, we just played right into their hands.  Maybe they never intended to replicate another September 11th.  Once was enough to raise the ire of the self-described greatest nation on earth, to draw it out to go stomping around, exhausting itself in its attempts to crush the gnats that stung it, until the underlying moral and cultural decay could no longer stand the strain that its adventures created, and it began to tire and collapse through its own exertions.  We’re not losing the war to al-Qaeda.  We’re losing it to ourselves.

Two much wiser men than me have written fantastic analyses that I’d like to share here.  The first is by the fantastic Andrew Bacevich, a personal hero of mine, and his contribution for this occasion at The American Conservative does not disappoint (thanks to Daniel Nichols at Caelum et Terra for alerting me to this).  The second is a unique and very valuable angle taken by Elias Crim at Front Porch Republic.  I hope you enjoy them and find them enlightening.

And I’ll close you out with this appropriately mournful and beautiful ballad from Wilco:

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.

Tourism and Community Wednesday, Aug 3 2011 

First, let me apologise for the amount of time I have left since my last posting.  It has been a busy summer, and I am still in the process of organising a schedule whereby I can devote regular postings to this blog.

Some of the blame for my extended silence must be attributed to two recent trips abroad, to Umbria and the Dalmatian coast respectively.  The former was a yearly pilgrimage to Assisi, while the latter was an opportunity to get away under the justification of research to see what remains of medieval Zara (not much, as it turns out).  Both were lovely trips, filled with all sorts of sites of cultural and religious interest (in the Mediterranean, the two are often the same thing).  The natural beauty of the places was breathtaking as well, and I managed to get in hikes to the top of Mount Subasio and around the Plitvička Lakes, and my girlfriend got to bask on the pebble beaches on the island of Vis (not usually much of a beach person myself, I have to admit that I was pretty reluctant to leave the unbelievably clear and blue waters around the fishing village of Komiža).  But to change tone from what seems quickly to be turning into a travel advertisement, both trips impressed me with an (admittedly hypocritical) anxiety for the preservation of all that beauty, not only of the woods and beaches, but also of the quiet, cool stone churches with their small red lamps burning reassuringly.  And I couldn’t help but worry that I was contributing to the peril I feared.

Growing up, I remember being taught as an axiom that travel gives one a wider worldview, broadens one’s horizons, expands one’s tastes, and generally instills in one a love of the Community of the World.  This mantra was repeated throughout secondary school and into university.  What my educators meant by all this was that travelling intrinsically helps to make one a Better Person.  Travelling, even gratuitously, so the argument goes, increases the number and diversity of people with whom one interacts, thus expanding one’s conception of community.  By expanding that community to embrace the world, one has made everyone his neighbour, and with that accomplished, he can all turn to the much easier task of loving his neighbours.  If only we could get more people to travel, we would be that much closer to achieving world peace.

There are a number of problems with this argument, chief among them being the weight of contrary historical evidence.  My research for my doctoral thesis has lately had me looking pretty closely at the Fourth Crusade.  Certainly both the kingdoms of western Europe and the Eastern Roman Empire benefited materially and culturally from the centuries of interaction preceding 1204, but that commerce of goods and ideas also sowed deep misunderstandings, resentments, and arrogance between the two spheres of Christendom.  The sack of Constantinople that brought the Fourth Crusade to its end was superficially the result of immediate circumstances of perceived necessity, but it was only made possible by the long history of traffic and competition between two cultures that fundamentally failed to understand each other, both in spite and because of that history.  The same can be said, I believe, for most wars, right up to the Second Iraqi War.

In the end, this stems from the fact that in trying to make the world our neighbour in order to love them, we’ve forgotten that we don’t really love our actual geographical neighbours.  The point of Christ’s parable about the Samaritan was not to go out looking for people or cultures to love (Samaria, after all, is not that far from Jerusalem or Jericho), but to love first those that come across our path.  When we limit ourselves to our communities of choice and convenience, both in our suburban homes and in our foreign holiday destinations, we fail to love our neighbour in any meaningful sense. ‘Charity begins at home’ is not only a maxim for families; indeed, it is usually applied to families precisely because they are the most basic manifestation of community.

This problem is compounded when, in our vast and vague interaction with other cultures, we begin to believe that we really do understand them.  We develop a smug feeling of transcending our own traditions and those of others, like that of an anthropologist who has figured it all out.  But in reality we can never truly transcend our own cultural heritage.  Perhaps we never have an opportunity to start with a clean slate culturally, but we certainly don’t once we reach maturity.  As much as we may discover about other cultures, we cannot ever fully adopt them for our own, and if we instead try to stand above all of them, we both delude ourselves and run the risk of surrendering a crucial element of what it means to be human: a sense of home.  We can play the anthropologist, but in trying to study humans we may quickly find that we have lost our fellowship with them.

Finally, I have observed fellow tourists often enough to have seen that travel does not have beneficial, broadening effects on everyone.  The British couple annoyed that the Roman restaurant doesn’t have air conditioning or the American woman panting out her frustration that the towers of Notre-Dame de Paris aren’t furnished with lifts are anecdotal examples of a wider phenomen: people travel because they are encouraged to, only to find it further entrenches their convictions that everything back home is best.  This might not be a bad thing in itself (though I would hope for a more nuanced understanding that one might prefer things at home, rather than believing them to be absolutely ‘best’; the best antidote to jingoism is truly loving the place one is from, and thus understanding why others love their own homes), but people seem to be less likely to conclude that they should therefore stay at home than to decide they should use their power as consumers to convince the places they visit to accommodate their expectations.

Thus the tourist trade becomes another victory for the forces of globalisation, but also one of the clearest proofs that globalisation’s supposed egalitarian mission, to lift up other countries to the level of material comfort enjoyed by the United States and other industrialised nations, is really just the modern form of imperialism.  Through a variety of means, tourism exports included, the ‘modernised’ economies and political systems force, through hard or soft power, other cultures to fall into line.  We may appreciate Italian cooking, French churches, or Croatian wilderness, but when we engage with them selectively, divorced from the rest of its culture, we turn them into museum pieces, robbing them of their life and turning the rest of the world into a sterilised exhibit for the benefit of the English-speaking world (I know English speakers aren’t the only countries to export tourism on a grand scale *ahem Japan and China ahem*, but I do find the wild proliferation of English among foreign countries, while convenient, troubling from a cultural perspective).  Because other cultures often do not have the material means for their members to travel with the same volume or frequency as Americans and western Europeans, they continue to be importers of tourism who must accommodate the visitors.  But even if they could influence the cultures of more industrialised countries, and globalisation was actually egalitarian in any meaningful way, the best for which we could hope would be a grey, amorphous universal ‘culture’ that would not reflect any true historical human experience and would, on account of its scale, be completely alien to any significant sense of community.

Throw on top of these cultural issues the environmental damage caused by high volumes of travel, both through transportation and general sightseeing, and the problem becomes further compounded.  The Croatian beaches and mountains were incredibly pristine, and this despite already high levels of traffic, but what happens when Croatia’s reputation as a prime tourist destination continues to grow, and the country joins the European Union in a few years?

Of course, this all sounds incredibly hypocritical; after all, I have just enjoyed spending time in all these places, so to discourage others from travelling sounds very selfish of me.  Furthermore, I don’t intend to stop visiting other countries, for both academic and recreational purposes.  But the purpose of this article is not that travel (or even tourism) is a modern phenomenon to which we need to put an end; cross-cultural travel has been a consistent feature throughout history, and medieval pilgrimages could be considered a (less frivolous) form of pre-modern tourism.

However, I would like to challenge the way we think about travel and tourism.  We need to acknowledge that the maxim that travel has positive effects on everyone, while conforming to a certain liberal ideology and worldview, does not correspond to reality.  Furthermore, even in those cases where an individual evades the Scylla of having his bigotry and distaste for things unfamiliar confirmed by experience, he may plummet into the Charybdis of detached (and perhaps even cynical) anthropology in his approach toward both foreign cultures and his own.

Instead of insisting that the key to world harmony is for all of us to participate in tourism a bit more, perhaps we might relax the pressure to travel as a morally beneficial experience, and allow people to discover the beauty that surrounds them in their own homes and communities.  Of course people would still travel, and there would still be tourists.  And those who had a deep curiosity, interest, and love for a distant place would still go to explore it.  But if tourism was seen less as something that everyone (or at least those who can afford it) simply did for doing, as less of an industry that had to constantly encourage people to go places they would not have been interested in going otherwise, the experience for those who truly do wish to engage with foreign cultures would likely be more rewarding, as the places they would visit could better defend themselves against the temptation toward kitsch and convenience.  Let’s not stop exploring the beauty of distant shores, but let’s sally forth out of love, not because we’re bored with the beauty we haven’t even yet discovered at home.

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.

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