Tuesday, March 15, 2005

MH - Distributism, Part III

In part 1 of our series on Distributism, we discussed the reasons why a third way - neither socialist nor capitalist - might be needed, by looking at how both Republicans and Democrats fall short in certain areas. Part 2 dealt with previous papal encyclicals on the subject of capitalism and its relationship to the dignity of the worker.

We could do this entire post on Chesterton, and maybe we will. My thanks to Dale Ahlquist and his book G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, which I've cited before, as the source of many of the Chesterton quotes.

Chesterton felt Big Business and Big Government were both dedicated to controlling the lives of individuals. In the case of Big Business, it was done through making the employee a "wage slave," one who worked not for himself but for someone else.
"When most men are wage-earners, it is more and more difficult for most men to be customers. For the capitalist is always trying to cut down what his servant demands, and in doing so is cutting down what his customer can spend."
This can be seen most strikingly in the advent of the superstore, the one-stop, low-price leading mega-building. Now, Wal-Mart wasn't around when Chesterton lived, but you wouldn't know it by his predictions. Chesterton forsaw the development of the superstore, and didn't like it. One of the funniest claims, Chesterton says, is:
"[T]he statement that it is convenient to get everything in the same shop. That is to say, it is convenient to wlalk the length of the street, so long as you walk indoors or...underground, instead of walking the same distance in the open air from one little shop to another. The truth is that the monopolists' shops are really very convenient - to the monopolist. They have all the advantages of concentrating business as they concentrate wealth, in fewer and fewer of the citizens."
In other words, by controlling the amount of disposable income we have, the big business forces us to seek the lowest prices we can, therefore driving us to that same big business. We're told that these companies are able to keep prices low by buying in bulk, and those who favor such companies will say that in doing so, the big business is able to keep other businesses - its suppliers - afloat.

But look at the problems inherent in such a situation - take the crash of Kmart a few years ago, for example. When Fleming won the contract to be the sole food supplier for Kmart, it was seen as a major victory for Fleming, and a defeat for its competitors. However, when Kmart ran into major financial difficulties in 2002, Fleming felt the pain of having put so many eggs in one basket (Kmart was responsible for one-quarter of Fleming's revenue, according to this story), and wound up facing problems of its own. Of course, when you read the fine print you see that Ronald Burke, one of the major investors in Kmart, also owned a sizable chunk of Fleming stock, which he sold for $75 million, making a $25 million pretax profit.

However, Chesterton saw more danger from big business than simply the superstore. There was the matter of big business' effect on the individual. Both big government and big business conspire against the individual because, Ahlquist says, "they are soulless. They are in revolt against the normal and the ordinary...They do not want the common man to have power." As Chesterton points out:
"They are willing to give him a vote, because they have long discovered that it need not give him any power. They are not willing to give him a house, or a wife, or a child, or a dog, or a cow, or a piece of land, because these things really do give him power."
In this sense, big business and big government are invoved in a conspiracy against you and me. For many years, the common wisdom has been that Republicans are the party of big business, while Democrats favor the working man. However, big business has a much broader agenda, and contributes substantially to both parties, in order to maintain its influence. Its ultimate goal is to maintain the status quo, for which they generally use the offices of the Democratic party. Think about it: more regulation, more layers of bureaucracy - in other words, specialities of the Democrats - actually favor big business. Oh, they may complain about it, perhaps in order to maintain their cover, but in fact these rules and regulations cost money - money that entreprenuers and smaller businesses seldom can afford. Through regulation, big business is able to eliminate competition and continue their monopolies. What the Republican party truly needs to do is identify itself more closely with the entreprenuerial class, which is the area of the economy that actually produces jobs, and tends to afford employees more ownership abilities.

Economics is not the only area in which this unholy aliance poses a threat to society. Chesterton stated in The Superstition of Divorce:

Capitalism . . . is at war with the family, for the same reason which has led to its being at war with the Trade Union . . . It desires its victims to be individuals, or (in other words) to be atoms. For the word atom, in its clearest meaning (which is none too clear) might be translated as individual. If there be any bond, if there be any brotherhood, if there be any class loyalty or domestic discipline, by which the poor can help the poor, these emancipators will certainly strive to loosen that bond or lift that discipline in the most liberal fashion . . . in other words smash it to atoms.

. . . A very profound and precise instinct has led them to single out the human household as the chief obstacle to their inhuman progress. Without the family we are helpless before the State, which in our modern case is the Servile State.
Let's think about this for a moment, because this is really a multileveled arguement consisting of three main points: big business encouraging consumerism, big business taking workers away from their families, and big business producing products that harm the family.

Begin with the two-wage-earner family - one can argue, correctly, that this often is a consequence of materialism (or perhaps more accurately, consumerism), becaues people want their toys - the second home, the fourth car, etc. On the face of it, this seems to be something you can't hang on big business.

True, but before we go too far down this road let's go back to what JPII said in Centesimus Annus: "If, on the contrary, a direct appeal is made to his instincts — while ignoring in various ways the reality of the person as intelligent and free — then consumer attitudes and life-styles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to his physical and spiritual health." In other words (my interpolation), materialism can be said to be an outgrowth of original sin, an affinity for sin; for business to deliberately cultivate and take advantage of that affinity is in and of itself a sin, when it "totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs." (JPII)

When big business panders to, indeed creates, desires that are based purely on materialism, they must share some of the blame for creating this atmosphere of consumerism. You could call them predators, feeding off human weakness like a bar serving booze to a known alcoholic; the bartender may claim that he's only giving the customer what he wants, but in fact he's taking advantage of that alcoholic, exploiting his weakness in the name of profit.

Let me hasten to add: I'm not trying to say there's something wrong with owning nice things. Again, let's go back to what JPII said:
It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards "having" rather than "being", and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.
And what I'm trying to suggest is that corporate America, in its desire to make as much money as possible, is in the business of creating life-styles based on "having," on spending money and gaining possessions rather than spending time trying to gain the Kingdom of God.

But I said this was a multileveled arguement. Now let's look at its affect on family life in general. Ahlquist summarizes Chesterton's position on big business and the family as follows:

"Families are a nuisance to businesses that have to provide a living wage, health care plans, and maternity leave, and that have to put up with employees coming in late or going home early because a child is sick or missed the school bus."
Look at the statistics - Americans work more hours than employees in any other industrialized country, yet we take less vacation time. Work is the source of so much family stress - economic pressures, extended business travel, more time at the office - is enormous. And this says nothing about how artificial work measures such as "team building" put pressures on marriages by encouraging close relationships between men and women.

Yet business often turns a blind eye to such pressures, and nowhere is this attitude more evident than in the HR information I quoted earlier. It's clear that business sees employee value in terms of what the employee contributes to the well-being of the company, not the intrinsic value of the individual. Some would argue that business has done a great deal for the families - providing on-site day care facilities, plus other amenities at the corporate "campus," such as stores, dry cleaners, fitness centers, and medical facilities. But is this really for the advantage of the employee, or is it for the convenience of the company - to keep the employee at work as long as possible, to eliminate as many excuses as possible for the employee wanting to leave the facility. Keep 'em there, and they'll work longer and harder.

So far, we've talked about the internal mechanics of big business, and how it works (alone and in collaboration with big government) to dehumanize the employee and separate him from his family. In our next post we'll discuss how business puts profits ahead of people - and nations - by the products they produce.

And remember, all this is not intended as an attack on business per se, but a buildup to the rationale behind Distributism, and how it can become part of our thinking, our behavior, and our political system.


  1. The "third way" that you speak of at the beginning of your post used to be fulfilled by the Democratic Party, at least the Democrats of the mid-20th century. It was a time, looking back now, when giants walked the earth.

    The Democrats of this period understood as among their objectives 1) creating jobs; 2)softening the brutal edges of capitalism; 3)standing up for the least fortunate in society.

    Hubert H. Humphrey was asked at a rally "why do we need a Democratic Party?" We need a Democratic Party, he replied, "to protect those in the dawn of life, the shadows of life, the twilight of life."

    Today's Democratic Party is not your father's. This party's presidential candidate in 2004, so craven was he to the corporate interests bankrolling his campaign, said next to nothing about the public responsibilty of business in American life, save for a few cheap applause lines about the outsourcing of a relative handful of jobs.

    We expect the GOP to be the party of business and raw capitalism, and the public interest be damned. What we need today is a true opposition party that represents the interests of average Americans and takes the long view.


  2. Whitcomb,

    You make some very good points. Living here in Minnesota, we were quite familiar with HHH. My mother, a Republican who worked for the company that did all the printing for the Minnesota DFL party, knew him and liked him, even though she'd never vote for him (she always used to give him a hard time about that, and he appreciated it). But you're absolutely correct that a Hubert Humphrey is exactly what the Democratic Party needs today in order to be a legitimate alternative for the moral voter.

    I was rereading a section of "The Making of the President 1972" this week, and that certainly seems to represent the watershed in terms of the Dems becoming a leftist (not liberal) party. This appears to be when they started to adopt issues like abortion as the identity of the party. Looking at McGovern's successful attempt to oust the Illinois delegation headed by Mayor Daley (who, unlike his son, was pro-life), we see that although they may have been striking a blow for "the people" running the party, they also allowed the extremist elements to apply their own rigid litmus tests, which have continued to evolve and from which the Democratic Party has yet to recover.

    While we're at it, we can perhaps hope for a stronger Distributism element in the Republican Party. Maybe both these thoughts are far--fetched, but we can always hope!

    Thanks for your good comments; please comment again!


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