Monday, May 2, 2005

MH - Distributism, Part V

Well, this has been fun, hasn't it? We've spent quite a bit of time discussing Distributism and related topics. Pretty soon we're going to have to decide what to do with it.

In this final segment, I want to bring us closer to modern times, and the famed Catholic social campaigner Dorothy Day. Day, with Peter Maurin, co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933.

Now, when you start getting into the Catholic Worker, you have to be careful. In all honesty, I don't subscribe to every aspect of the Catholic Worker movement. For example, I don't necessarily consider myself a pacifist. (I once made the great mistake of trying to describe my philosophy as being a "man of peace, man of violence" to someone who was a complete philosophical cretin - she probably thought you spelled "philosophy" with an F.) I also think that people in the movement have had a tendency in the past to identify themselves too closely with labor unions and socialist or liberation theology movements, which I think is a profound exaggeration of what the Catholic Worker movement is all about. Nonetheless, I've found that it's all right to approvingly cite groups you don't completely agree with, as long as what you're borrowing from them is grounded in fundamental Catholic teaching. And that is the case with the Catholic Worker movement.

According to the Catholic Worker website, the movement "is grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person." Catholic Worker was started during the Depression, with the purpose of providing food, clothing and shelter to the needy. Think of the Joan Collins character in the classic Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever." However, unlike Catholic Charities, for example, the Catholic Worker movement felt that the message had to accompany the charity for it to truly help. "We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes," Day explained, "but there is strong faith at work. We pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn't pay attention to our prayings and what that means, then he'll miss the whole point."

Day staunchly believed that Corporate America had a responsibility to society. She was once quoted as saying, "We are all guilty of concupiscence (desires of the flesh), but newspapers, radio, TV and the batallion of advertising people (Woe to that generation!) deliberately stimulate our desires." As the Houston Catholic Worker summarized her words,
For her, to tempt people constantly and to barrage them with advertisement is immoral and unethical. One of the greatest sins, she says, is "to instill in the heart of the worker paltry desire, so compulsive that he or she is willing to sell liberty and honor to satisfy them.

The Catholic Worker movement is often considered when people talk about Distributism. Day's contribution to our study is to look at the motives of Corporate America. We've discussed at length how unfettered capitalism, in an unrelenting drive for profit, has few scruples when it comes to pushing its product. For example, companies pander to homosexual groups without regard to moral consequences - they don't even see homosexuals as people, just demographics. As long as they bring in money, why not legitimize their actions in our commercials? Food companies aggressively target children, and there are many who think the growth in obesity among kids is related to the extensive advertising they see from these companies. One of the most hilarious things I've seen is the "campaign" by tobacco companies to discourage teens from using their product. You really have to wonder about this, since most demographic advertising is predicated on the idea that you reach a potential customer early in life, when they're most susceptible to forming brand allegiance. It shows how far we've gone that we actually force tobacco companies to go through with this charade.

This brief summary is in no way to be considered an adequate explanation of the Catholic Worker movement. By all means, check out the links and learn more about this important part of Catholic history. The purpose in introducing it here is to bring the story of Distributism to our time.

Many of you will suggest that this was all well and good from an intellectual or academic point of view, but it doesn't really get us anywhere. After all, how likely is it that we'll turn back the clock to a farm economy, to family-run businesses, to stay-at-home moms? And you're right. Although Chesterton was fond of challenging people to explain why we couldn't turn back the clock, I'll agree that with something as large as a global economy, that might be kind of hard to do.

Unfortunately, once you dive into a subject like this you begin to get involved in the internecine battle between the paleo-conservatives and the neo-conservatives. (By the way, when you figure this one out, let me know.) Actually, I'm kidding about that last comment. I will admit to having mostly paleo sympathies, but in areas such as the Iraq War I'm probably more closely identified with the neocons. But I respect each side, and as you can tell from many of the posts in this blog, I liberally use information from each when I find it trenchant.

In this situation, I'm going to try to split the difference. True paleos, such as Michael Rose, would sharply criticize neos like Michael Novak for not being "anti-capitalist" enough: "There is little doubt that Novak's efforts have done much both to convince American Catholics that capitalism is their only economic option, and to discredit the real Catholic answer to that contention...." Well, I don't know about that. I like Rose, but I like Novak as well. The truth is that capitalism is deeply flawed - as would be any system that promotes corporate scandals like Enron, that encourages disordered thinking such as that exhibited by the company in this HR memo, that fosters the growth of mega-world conglomerates and produces such an inequity in wages, that causes companies to prostitute themselves in the name of higher profits, that turns employees into wage slaves and regards them as little more than pieces on a gameboard, to be moved around at whim.

Deeply flawed, as I say, but at the moment it's what we've got to work with. As we saw in our previous Distributism post, German bishop Wilhelm Emmanual von Ketteler, a father of Catholic social thought, "accepted capitalism and believed that its replacement was not a practical possibility." We have to try to turn things around, true, but unless the revolution comes in the next few weeks, we're going to have to do it within the context of adopting Distributionist principles in our own lives and habits, and to work for their introduction in the basic framework of capitalism.

What kind of changes are these? Race Mathews of Australia, in his 1999 G. K. Chesterton Memorial Lecture, made several recommendations on implementing the principles of distributism, as outlined in this fine article:

  1. Measures are needed to insure that small businesses are not crushedby larger ones, outlawing predatory pricing and other anti-competitive practicesas well as unfair retail leases in large shopping complexes.
  2. Acknowledgment by government that agribusiness and small holder farming-the authentic family farm--differ radically from one another and accordingly have different requirements in terms of public policy.
  3. Every worker should own a share in the assets and control of the business in which he works. This can be implemented through ESOP's, mutualism and cooperatives which should reinvent themselves for new needs.
Nicholas Healy concurs with Mathews in this article (tax incentives for small scale entrepreneurship, growth of Employee Stock Ownership Plans, zoning laws to favor small businesses over Wal-Marts), but suggests we must look deeper into ourselves:

          A great deal could be accomplished by changing laws to encourage smaller-scaled enterprises. Perhaps this would slow down, if not reverse, our cultural decay. Yet encouraging a degree of "distributism" may not be enough. Perhaps it is time to go deeper; to reconsider our economic system in the light of a new understanding of the nature of man, and head the Holy Father's recent exhortation for us to reconsider the role of woman.
          What does this mean?

          Capitalism seems quintessentially masculine. It rewards initiative, aggressiveness, competitiveness and single-minded devotion to work. It is not a system which encourages or rewards receptivity, the divinely ordained role of "receiving and giving." Of course, women can and do succeed in the market economy, but too often they are required to do so on "male" terms. At times, they seem to "succeed" by diminishing or subsuming their femininity. Thus, much of the debate on the role of women has centered on "rights" and "empowerment"; in effect, the opportunities to be given women in a "masculine" system.

          Mary, as the role model par excellence, shows us that receptivity is the essential beginning for the Christian. Her fiat: "Be it done unto me according the Thy word," led to her gift: "My soul doth magnify the Lord." Opening to the Holy Spirit, she bore abundant fruit, and the graces she received she has lavished on the world in ever increasing measure.


          What would an economic system be like if it emphasized and encouraged Marian receptivity? What if we put first not initiative, efficiency and productivity, but openness to God, family stability and security, the valuing of the human person, and true service to the poor? In Centissimus Annus, the Holy Father noted that ordering society to the Catholic vision of the common good may require "important changes in established lifestyles in the Capitalist countries." Surely this suggests a more radical approach than merely tempering the abuses of capitalism. Surely we cannot cling uncritically to a system which, for all its marvelous generation of wealth, has undoubtedly helped bring us to the brink of cultural and spiritual ruin as a nation.

          I could not begin to suggest the practicalities of a more feminine system based on Marian receptivity. I do suggest that it is fitting for Catholic intellectuals to reflect prayerfully and fearlessly on our economic and social arrangements. It may be that the answer does not lie in a new "system" at all. Perhaps, like most things Christian, it must begin with each of us having a changed heart and new eyes. Yet, if we trust God and His Word, we know that it is in giving that we receive, and it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

          What I particularly like about Healy's suggestions are that they demonstrate a holistic way of thinking - they cut to the heart of Catholic teaching and show how it comes into play in this situation. (I'm not necessarily saying I agree with his entire hypothesis, but I like how he put it together.) This is a true example of what this blog has been talking about all along - using that Catholic faith to inform your thinking on all kinds of issues, from culture to economics and politics to literature and art. It exposes the lie, expounded by so many secularists (and liberals) that faith must be left at the door when you enter the public arena.

          But it does mean a change, doesn't it? Are we going to be like the rich young man who, upon learning from Our Lord that he would have to give up everything, shook his head and walked sadly away?

          The answer lies within ourselves. As employees, we must stand up for what is right in the workplace. Maybe we can't do it openly, but we can do it in the way we live our lives, the way we serve in the workplace as a witness to our faith. To do it, we must not be afraid to dare to be different.

          As stockholders and investors, we must hold our corporate executives accountable to a higher standard of ethics. We must also ask ourselves if we are satisfied with a "moral" profit, or if the increases must go even higher. Do we put profits ahead of people? Chesterton commented,

          If capitalism means private property, I am capitalist. If capitalism means capital, everybody is capitalist. But if capitalism means this particular condition of capital, only paid out to the mass in the form of wages, then it does mean something, even if it ought to mean something else.

          The truth is that what we call Capitalism ought to be called Proletarianism. The point of it is not that some people have capital, but that most people only have wages because they do not have capital.

          Finally, as consumers, we must ask how much encouragement we give to Corporate America through our buying habits. In this article the writer Wendell Barry, "who believes in economic democracy, says we are in trouble if we have an industrial economy--and he believes we do'which is firmly founded on the seven deadly sins and the breaking of all ten of the Ten Commandments." (Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community). He once pointed out the connection between advertising and the commandment against adultery:

          To make sex the preferred bait of commerce may seem merely theobvious thing to do, once greed is granted its now conventional priorityas a motive… Television is the greatest disrespecter and exploiterof sexuality that the world has ever seen; even if the network executivesdecide to promote" safe sex" and the use of condoms, they willnot cease to pimp for the exceedingly profitable "sexual revolution.

          Keep in mind that this concerns not just America. We export our goods to the rest of the world; so also do we export our economics, our way of doing business, and the effects that we see here have been seen around the world. One of the great concerns of John Paul II was that Communism would be replaced in the East by the rampant materialism and corruption seen in the West. His fears have been well-founded. We've succeeded in making many of these countries just as decadant as our own. Europe was already there, had already done the damage; we seem to be racing with them to see who can bring down the rest of the world first.

          So we have some thinking to do. Do we accept the corruption of our children with products such as Bratz? Do we hold corporate executives responsible for their involvement in social issues, such as this story of Microsoft supporting a gay-rights bill? Do we shop at the national chain, the Big Box retailer who has little in common with our community, or do we spend our dollars with local retailers?

          Pointing out what's wrong with Corporate America is like catching fish in a barrel. You don't even have to go looking for it, it comes to you. All you have to do is write it. (And I will continue to do that; it doesn't end with this series.) We must go further - we must be willing to hold others accountable, and hold ourselves. It's apparent that Corporate America is failing us badly. Its emphasis on the bottom line, its innate desire to view workers as pieces of property, as economic units that can be shuffled around at will, its willingness ot pimp itself for the sake of the almighty dollar - all of this strips away the humanity of man and reduces him to a wage slave. All the while CEOs walk away with obscene salaries, even while their companies post losses or face bankruptcy. Perhaps it's easier said than done, but the people running these corporations must be held accountable to some level of moral standards.

          How is this to be done? The suggestions above are a good start, but while government can do some things, we have to remember that most Distributionists saw Big Government as the flip side of Big Business - neither one to be trusted. I think change will be accomplished primarily through conversion of the heart. Corporations are neither moral nor immoral, they just are. In the end, it's the people running the companies who are going to have to change. As consumers, as workers, as stockholders, as neighbors, as voters - we are in a position to help this happen.

          We can help them out by changing ourselves. When they see that trafficking in immorality doesn't bring a profit, when they see that treating employees as statistics doesn't serve society, they might change. But if they look out over America - over the people whom they often treat with such contempt - and see nothing more than willing victims - if that is what they see, why should they change? As Christ once asked, when the Son of Man returns, will He find faith on earth?

          Will He find it in the economy of the West?

          The answer is up to us.


          1. If by Distributism you mean the same thing as Hilaire Belloc's Distributivism, you might want to make that more explicit.

            Concerning the concentration of capital and economic sway in a relatively small number of firms, look to Big Government for the cause. Giantism in an economy is inherently inefficient; it must be propped up by a political power that favors its practitioners. When the United States' "government fraction" was 10%, there was no significant capital concentration. Today, with the "government fraction" somewhere between 40% and 50%, we have real problems. Food for thought.

          2. Francis,

            Thanks for your comments! Since the literature from the American Chesterton Society refers to "Distributism," I cede to them on the spelling, but I believe we're talking about the same thing. Belloc certainly was a force in that.

            I think you make some excellent points about the role of Big Government in all this. An additional thought on that - as BG as assumed so many roles within the family, roles that used to be held by the male as the "breadwinner," it takes away from the individual responsibility that each person used to feel - they now feel that "someone else" can take care of it. A vital part of the Distributist theory, IMHO, is active participation by the people - when they give up that power, give it to the government, power is bound to become centralized.

            Very good points, something indeed to think about. Thanks for commenting, hope you return and do so often!



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