In contemplating a future in which Distributism could be applied effectively, as I wrote in my previous installment, Distributism, Now?, John Médaille and Phillip Blond focus on the economic and social factors. This emphasis is entirely appropriate—and making the economic case (the mechanical as distinct from the moral), showing how Distributism could work in a modern economy, has probably been underplayed in the 120 years since Rerum Novarum appeared. The social factors, too, are obviously crucial, and as Chesterton himself did, and Phillip Blond is now strengthening, the connections between society and the economy need to be more clearly and fully laid out. However, apart from the economic and social realities, there is another factor of importance—and that is the psychological aspects of Distributism. How open to such change—the wide distribution of property—is the community at large?
At first this may seem a ridiculous rhetorical question. The focus on private property and on the wide distribution of ownership is plainly appealing. Yet, at a deeper level, it may find huge psychological resistance. Both Chesterton and Belloc addressed this psychological obstacle in their writings on Distributism. They felt that a servile attitude had gained hold in the minds and hearts of their people, after several centuries of Big Business, with its relentless advertising that promotes the conversion of wants into needs, and then the foreseeable triumph of Big Government, with its pervasive provision of services and support systems. The force of Big Business had stimulated a culture of high— and rising—expectations that would be formidably hard to dampen, and the emerging culture of Big Government would heighten these expectations, creating a culture of entitlement, so that the availability of pensions and payments from the State would become an unquestioned right, expected and guaranteed, and not just a powerful aspiration, applied and paid for.
In the early writings of distributists, especially Chesterton and Belloc, there is a lurking fear that many people may have become so inured to the experience of security, of the sanctuary of dependence, that they would resolve the tension between security and liberty by surrendering liberty—and finding a certain satisfaction in being servile.
Chesterton, in The Outline of Sanity, noted the existence of a ‘servile disposition’, and he invoked a memorable phrase to describe this condition—‘a catastrophe of contentment’,1 as he put it, which can envelop large numbers of people.
Belloc, in The Servile State (1912), argued that the people at large retain what he called ‘the instinct of ownership’, but that our society had now reached a point where its modes of thought and habit were permeated by collectivist assumptions and expectations which did not readily lend themselves to a distributist solution.
The shift from a capitalist to a collectivist arrangement—with the State taking over private entities—is easily understood. But to go from a concentration of property to a broad distribution of ownership is, in Belloc’s words, ‘working against the grain’. Will men want to own?, Belloc asks dramatically, almost as if it were a question he is afraid to answer—though is nonetheless brave enough to ask.2 Ordinary people must desire economic freedom sufficiently to undertake its burdens.
What burdens are those? Essentially, I think, they are the burdens of personal responsibility and risk-taking. For private property implies the acceptance—and even the enforcement—of personal responsibility. It is not necessarily an easy path to happiness, for freedom is a fraught condition—and a perpetually endangered gift. Both Chesterton and Belloc nursed the fear that the psychology of a society conditioned by capitalism and socialism might induce people to yield on liberty—to trade liberty, as it were, for security and sufficiency. We can become so used to passing on responsibility (and especially blame) to others, especially the State, that it could require a radical reawakening of the appetite for freedom to prepare us to exercise it once again.
Are there signs of hope today as we ponder the possible future of Chesterton’s—and the Church’s—social philosophy? Apart from the practical examples of ‘distributism in action’ which are presented in John Médaille’s book, it is possible to see, in the changes that have taken place in recent decades, signs of power being redistributed. The signs, of course, are mixed, but let me briefly mention two—one in the political sphere, the other in the area of technology.
In politics, we see in many countries the growing phenomenon of centralised power under challenge, whether in the Western democracies or the nations of the Middle East. The Canadian political scientist Donald J. Savoie has argued that the age of the mass party has ended and splinter groups of various kinds are arising which enter into temporary alliances in order to exercise power.3 Even where party government continues, leadership is becoming more personalized—even to the point of celebrity-like in societies saturated by 24-hour news and entertainment media.
Yet there are countervailing forces to this breakup of traditional power, forces that do not favour arrangements along distributist lines. We can cite the huge influence now exercised by financial markets, so that power in the traditional political arena is diminishing and temporary alliances are emerging. There is an intermingling of government and commercial companies in public-private partnerships and other mechanisms—shared arrangements between two sectors, the public and the private, whose values are different and perhaps incompatible, but which have arisen as a result of government sclerosis, of the growing inability of government and its bureaucratic instruments to deliver public services and produce policy results.
We can note the force of globalisation, which is transforming the nature of politics—and of political decision-making, now international in its scope rather than simply national or local. At times these new configurations of power and interdependency find expression in new structures, such as the European Union and a common currency (the Euro), or they are relatively unregulated, as in the case of Australia’s relationship with China.
A great deal more could be said on this topic, the changing nature of politics and power, but let us turn to the area of technology, especially personal technology and social media, and consider what developments there may be favouring a distributist approach to contemporary society.
In recent decades, we have seen, of course, an explosion of communications media—and a certain breaking up of concentrated power. From the advent of television more than half a century ago, when only a few networks were dominant, there has grown a multiplicity of channels through pay television—the phenomenon of narrowcasting as well as broadcasting. But the newer media are even more striking—the internet, the spread of laptops and iPads, and the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter. Now these personal and social technologies, it seems to me, are double-edged in relation to a distributist philosophy. On the one hand, they are private and personal, giving individuals freedom to access and store what information they wish and communicate with whoever they like. But on the other hand, they are public instruments, dependent on vast networks and global vendors (such as Google) and extremely vulnerable to commercial manipulation and social mischief. This ambiguity is reflected in the old saying that technological devices have the countenance of a servant, but the heart of a slave master. It is an intriguing question as to whether or not they represent a new and more subtle version of the ‘servile state’.
This is also a topic for further exploration and discussion, but the pervasiveness of social media is clearly relevant to future possibilities for distributism as a social philosophy.
So, what is to become of the pickpocket? Do we continue to accept him as a private operator in the marketplace (the capitalist approach), or do we legitimise him—and enlist him as an agent of the state (the socialist solution), perhaps working as fresh recruits for the Tax Office or Social Security? Or do we free all pickpockets from their practical addiction and make them distributists, so that they own their own pockets—and can start making their own trousers?
- Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity, 206, 253.
- Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State (London: T.N. Fouls, 1912), 108, 111. In The Crisis of Our Civilization (1937), 205, Belloc made the point even more tellingly: ‘The task of restoring private property as a general institution in society is impossible unless there be still left in the mass of men a sufficient desire for economic independence to urge them towards its attainment. You can give political independence by a stroke of the pen; you can declare slaves to be free or give the vote to men who have hitherto had no vote; but you cannot give property to men or families as a permanent possession unless they desire economic freedom sufficiently to be willing to undertake its burdens.’ See also Ward, Return to Chesterton, 228, 230.
- Donald J. Savoie, Power: Where Is It? (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011).