In a number of important variants of Distributism, a crucial plank of the distributist platform is the commitment to things local. This preferential option for the local within distributism comes with varied motivations. For some, what is most locally produced can best generate local employment. For others, it is because of the principle of subsidiarity articulated in the Catholic Social Teaching of Pius XI, that what is distributed at the most local level possible is often be most efficiently distributed. The distributist can also say that the defense of local things provides a concrete foundation to strengthens one’s connection to one’s community and best trains a person to live life within viscerally experienced limit. The enjoyment of the virtues of the local community are manifold and praiseworthy.
The laudatory aspects of the defence of the local community, however, can easily become undone when localism metastasises into an unhealthy tribalism. This often happens when one equates the love or defense of one’s community with a chauvinism with respect to those who hail from other communities, for few reasons other than that they are perceived to not hail originally from the local community. The scales for such chauvinism can vary from the smallest family to the largest nation. In the latter case, think of the ease in recent times with which an “America First” policy, for instance, with a greater focus on domestic concerns, becomes coupled with a hostile stance on migrants from outside the republic and a host of minorities within it. In Australia, the revolt against the ill-effects of a globalised economy is tapping into a xenophobic streak that is less about economic nationalism than a similar targeting of migrants and minorities as the root cause of a host of social and economic ills, a strategy that has taken one minor-party built on such a platform to the verge of holding the balance of power in the Australian Senate.
What can prevent localism from sliding into tribalism? To put it more precisely, what can prevent the love of community from closing in on itself and becoming hostile to perceived outsider threats? Furthermore, what can act as a concrete check against this slide?
A beginnings of a possible answer came while reading chapters of Emmanuel Mounier’s Personalism during a class in political philosophy at Campion College Australia. In that book, Mounier suggested that a healthy localism required not only a mere geographical register. The geographical preference only makes sense, he argued, when that preference is also directed towards a concrete person, a person that is not just a mind but also a body. In Mounier’s words “I cannot think without being and I cannot be without my body”. To paraphrase, it is impossible to think about a person’s existence without taking into account that person’s embodiment.
This is a far cry from modern conceptions of encounters with persons which, in their mediation through a screen, is one stricken from a bodily encounter. Mediated by an electronic screen, we encounter only a hologram of a person, and yet we find ourselves so willing to orient our interactions and policy directions purely on the basis of such holograms. Even Mounier, writing in the 1930s, saw the danger of these holograms, these abstractions of real people, in bringing about what he called a “depersonalisation” of culture that brought in turn a culture’s willingness to lash out at actual persons. The body, Mounier suggests, is an all-important brake against allowing our abstractions to overtake our actual encounters.
But brakes do not reversals make. Bulwarks do not advance, and a person as a bulwark against abstraction is an inadequate vehicle to reverse the enclosure that tribalism brings about. The embodied person must also be an agent of transformation of such enclosure. Once again, Mounier begins his thoughts on such a transformation with reference to the embodiment of the person. The body, being in space, thrusts the person outwards, Mounier wrote. Moreover, love thrusts the person outwards and also opens the person to another, welcoming the other as a good rather than a threat. Thus, if love expresses the truest nature of the embodied human person, the embodied human person is not meant to clench up into a self-contained fortress. Rather, the embodied person’s truest nature is expressed in openness, not to the person in the abstract, but to another concrete embodied person, our nearest neighbour. In the words of Personalism, a person’s truest nature consists in “decentralizing itself in order to become available for others” (20). This opening renders the borders of the community porous, where even the outsider is simultaneously a neighbour to be embraced as a good to the community. Conversely one’s love of the community should be but a preparation of an opening of oneself up towards others both within and beyond the borders of a community.
This anthropological point of opening up representing a person’s truest nature, is continued at a metaphysical level by David L. Schindler. In his Ordering Love, Schindler spoke about how a universe was created by a self-sufficient God who paradoxically expresses His godhead in a Trinitarian dance of self-emptying by one person into another. Given that opening up and emptying oneself is so radically built into the nature of the Godhead the universe, made in the image of God, could only be created as an act of love, making love the ordering principle of the universe. The universe, bearing the Imago Dei in its structure, similarly opens itself up to all creatures, and especially to human persons. In the same way that the universe opens itself to us, the love that is also part of the DNA of the human person goes beyond the warm fuzzies in a self-enclosed person and opens the person up to others, not just to others within the tribe, but even to those beyond it, one body at a time. It is only in this way can one combat the forces of abstraction of persons by a culture saturated with electronically mediated holograms.