Friday, October 19, 2012

Why Elfland?

As some will note, the title of this blog evokes ideas of Tolkein, forests, ecological perfection.  It also has an older connotation, from Gilbert Chesterton.  I do not generally agree with Chesterton on the supremacy of Christianity or Catholicism but I find him to be a thought-provoking author nonetheless.

In his book, "Orthodoxy" (1908) he included a chapter entitled "Ethics of Elfland" and which begins with the following paragraph I find to be inspirational

When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: "Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is." Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother's knee at the mere mention of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.

Elfland then is a rejection of practical politics over ideals, but that doesn't make it impractical, only that practical politics must serve the ideals and not the other ways around.  I also, as many Distributists have following Chesterton, reject Liberalism (in the Lockean sense of which Chesterton wrote, not the partisan way it is used today in modern American society)  for reasons I will leave to another post.

Elfland is the land where agrarianism meets environmentalism and where social justice coexists with the free market, but it is a place strangely alien to the modern world.

This blog will include Distributist musings on economics, politics, and the like.  Because I reject the Liberal consensus between both parties, and base my view on a different, earthy, economic reality, my views are non-partisan and I will likely be as hard on one party as the other.

What is Distributism, you may ask....

Distributism is an effort to reflect on what has failed in Capitalism and create a more free and also more just economic system.    Distributism may be seen as "post-Capitalistic" but it runs a very different direction from socialism or communism.  Here are my working definitions of various systems:

  • Liberal Capitalism is the ownership of the means of production by the financier (bank or investor) through the instrument of the corporation.
  • Communism is the takeover of private ownership by the state which is ostensibly the collective representation of the workers.
  • Socialist Capitalism is capitalism where taxes on capitalists are used to care for the lower classes.
  • Distributism is where the workers themselves buy their own means of production and are significant owners in their own work and businesses.
 The Distributist critique of Capitalism is relatively similar to the socialist or communist critique of it.  Capitalism depends on an oppressed worker class for its survival, and this class must be kept poor so they will have no choice but to continue to work under poor conditions for their employers, who will be made rich over the backs of the poor.  However, to the Distributist, this occurs because the financiers have amassed centralized control over the means of production and hence the economy.  The Distributist concern that Capitalism is both inherently unstable and destructive because of too much centralization of power is necessary to understand the critiques of communism and socialist capitalism and the alternatives offered by distributists.

Distributists are usually actually even more negative on communist governments than on liberal capitalist economies.  The simple argument, put forth by Hilaire Belloc in "The Servile State" in 1912,  is that if we are right, and the problems of capitalism are caused by centralized control then you cannot solve them by taking the control out of the hands of the few and entrusting them to the still fewer hands of state bureaucrats.  Interestingly Wilhelm Reich, a non-Communist Marxist, made a similar critique of the Soviet system in his book "The Mass Psychology of Fascism."  The result of course is not less class warfare or workers that are better off but rather more class warfare (in this case the state actors vs the workers), and more worker oppression.  Belloc was right in this regard.

The critiques of socialist capitalism are a bit more complex.  The basic argument is that the social welfare programs have the capacity to enslave people to their work and can be twisted by the upper classes to do so.  In other words, the victories by the working class in class warfare can fundamentally be turned into tools of their enslavement.  This isn't necessarily always the case, but it is an important tendency if distributist priorities are not kept in the forefront.

What Distributism offers is a tradition of thought aimed at helping elevate the working class from the lower class into the middle class, reducing disparity of wealth, and the corrupting influence of capital.  It also offers a path of living where the assumptions of the present are rethought and intractable problems, from sustainability to gender equality in the workforce, become solvable.

While Distributism originated in English Catholicism, over time it has spread out.  I have met Distributists who were Catholic and some who were Orthodox.  A few more I have met who were Heathens and Neopagans.  Distributism as a personal philosophy cannot be separated from the religion of the practitioner, but it is inherently pluralistic and so thinkers of various traditions are welcome.

I myself am a Heathen and I see Distributism as offering an alternative to the sort of centralization that began in Europe first with the rise of the Roman Empire, and later with the expansion of Christianity into Northern Europe.  It seems deeply ironic to me that I'd look to more recent Christian traditions for an answer to the problems of the conversion and how to undo that harm, but Distributism is not separable from my religious life for me either, but I do say "we can all get along, if we choose to."

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