Distributism’s Significance for Our Present Social Predicaments
The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Volume V
By Michael Novak and John McCarthy
Pages: 661 pages
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
Scratch an American devotee of Chesterton and you usually find a political conservative. In part, this stems from Chesterton’s orthodox Catholicism, which attracts Catholics who combine religious orthodoxy with right-wing politics. Some leftists read Chesterton occasionally, but then only the Fr. Brown stories. More often they entertain the notion that he was a romantic medievalist and enemy of progressive causes, a type of Catholic bully-boy, blustering and sputtering at the modern world because it contained no obsequious serfs, no knights astride prancing chargers, and no hideous dragons to slay. It is hard to say who exhibits the more egregious perversity: the Chesterton-loving conservative or the Chesterton-hating leftist.
When William F. Buckley Jr. first met Garry Wills, he queried the young writer: “Are you a conservative?” Wills replied: “I’m a distributist. Is that a conservative?” The answer is no, something that Russell Kirk figured out back in 1953 when he published The Conservative Mind. Chiding Chesterton and Belloc for being “sentimentally democratic and economically fanciful,” Kirk exiled them “outside the true line of descent in conservative ideas.” At best, he concluded, they “were only auxiliaries of conservatism.”
Given this, it is odd that Michael Novak should have been tapped to co-edit the volume in Chesterton’s Collected Works that contains such distributist writings as The Outline of Sanity and Utopia of Usurers (as well as several other books that deal mainly with World War I). It is as if the general editors of the project had assigned Jimmy Swaggart a volume of G.K.C.’s works on Catholicism. Does someone on the editorial staff have a mischievous streak? One can almost see Novak grimacing as he composed the Introduction to The Outline of Sanity. He tries to put the best face on the matter, to soften Chesterton’s hatred of capitalism, but it won’t work: Chesterton is too blunt and Novak too honest. About the best Novak can do is to claim that “loathing Capitalism, however, Chesterton loathed Socialism more.” Even that is a debatable proposition. Novak, a champion of “democratic capitalism,” is stuck with a man who would have scorned the term as an oxymoron — and a pernicious one to boot.
Unable to enlist Chesterton for neoconservatism, Novak endeavors to gut G.K.C.’s case against capitalism. By Novak’s reckoning, Chesterton’s savage indictment took flight from a combination of ignorance, romanticism, and irrationality: ignorance of the true nature of capitalism, romanticization of “an often oppressive past,” and an irrational antipathy that voiced the heart’s desire at the expense of reason. But Novak has his own Pascalian reasons of the heart. In response to Chesterton’s contention that “no man has loved it [capitalism]; and no man has died for it,” Novak avers that “whoever loves democracy and liberty must love Capitalism.” Chesterton’s retort would have been swift, terse, and emphatic: “Balderdash!”
Still, Novak scrabbles to salvage something. “Isn’t Distributism a variant of democratic capitalism?” he pleads. Not likely: if anything, it is more akin to “democratic socialism.” I have no intention of attempting a feat of prestidigitation that would transform Chesterton into a blood brother to Michael Harrington or Irving Howe, but it does appear that leftists need to take another look at Chesterton, or, more likely, to look at him for the first time.
Novak is correct about one thing: Chesterton did “loathe” socialism, a word that evoked for him the image of unimaginative, oppressive state paternalism. As Margaret Canovan argues in her study of Chesterton, he was “thoroughly radical”; in a sense, socialism was insufficiently radical to suit his tastes. But the inadequacies of socialism did not lure his affections toward the conservatism of his day. Neither left-wing toes nor right-wing ones were safe from Chesterton’s large foot. In his imperviousness to the demands of ideological conformity, he adumbrated a social and political philosophy that retains its cogency and timeliness over a half-century after his death.
In The Outline of Sanity, published in 1926, Chesterton submitted his most detailed exposition of the idea known by the “awkward but accurate name of Distributism,” as he put it. In the same year, he, his friend Belloc, and a number of other kindred souls founded the Distributist League to promulgate their proposals and to attempt to translate them from the page into practice. The movement failed abysmally, though one suspects that seldom has a group of men and women had so much fun in the failing.
The English boast a marvelous capacity to produce — and tolerate — a continuing circus of misfits, cranks, eccentrics, half-daft dreamers, and crackbrained schemers. The Distributist League attracted a disproportionate share of such folks, a fact that partially accounts for the ease with which contemporaries consigned the movement to fantasyland, where its votaries could scamper about with such groups as The Friends of Jousting and Wassailing and The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Tufted-Titmice. When some of the league members began debating whether to smash their typewriters in order to thwart the industrial juggernaut, they waved good-bye to serious discourse. Ever since, the word “distributism” has emitted an odor of daffiness — amusing for its quaintness and idiosyncrasy, but in the end not to be taken seriously.
Although Chesterton cultivated a streak of romanticism and delighted in excursions into fantasyland, the source and inspiration for distributism lay elsewhere. The Outline of Sanity, Utopia of Usurers, and other scattered writings on the topic proceed from an incisive and clear-eyed appraisal of the England of the early 20th century. What he saw displeased him; at times, it soured his normal cheerfulness, disrupted his equanimity, and goaded him to fury. Behind the sham of representative government, he descried plutocrats manipulating the strings of power and big capitalists tightening their grip on the economy. The haves grabbed everything in sight, while the have-nots, sunk in torpor and despair, watched listlessly as the gap widened between plenty and penury. Stripped of freedom and deprived of property, the workers were enmeshed in the coils of a wage-slavery that forced them to labor unceasingly just to survive. No Marxist ever condemned this situation with a more withering ire.
Chesterton refused to succumb to the fatalism that sighed resignedly: What is, is. Man had contrived this deplorable state of affairs, and he could rectify it, though, Chesterton warned, this called for “heroic remedies.” In its essence, distributism meant this: property should be as widely distributed as possible. Like his contemporaries in the United States — the Southern Agrarians — Chesterton valued landed property above all else, not so much for its economic worth as for its almost metaphysical qualities. He believed, as he argued in The Outline of Sanity, that “the peasant does live, not merely a simple life, but a complete life”; his existence — work, play, family, religion — cohered in a harmonious unity that defied the centrifugal pull of modernity. “Self-support, self-control, self-government”: these traits were best exemplified by the independent yeoman farmer, beholden to no temporal master and securely rooted in his own patch of God’s green earth.
The Southern Agrarians had one conspicuous advantage over their English brothers: they sought to preserve and strengthen what already existed; their South remained in the 20th century a region of small farms. England was not similarly blessed; industrialization, urbanization, and the enclosure of once commonly held lands had largely destroyed her class of yeoman farmers. The distributists had to toil to recreate what had vanished.
This task — a fool’s errand, as it turned out — contributed to the image of Chesterton as a romantic medievalist, a Don Quixote tilting at turbine-powered windmills in hopes of engendering a revival of the medieval manor, replete with serfs tugging at their forelock as the lord rode out to survey his acres. Chesterton did admire the Middle Ages, but his admiration issued from no fanciful pipe dream. Two things most impressed him about the society of the era: its landed basis and the guild system. These furnished inspiration to tackle the ills of the 20th century; the Middle Ages served as an example of a coherent existence, not as a model to be replicated to the last archaic detail. Chesterton conceded that the centuries could not be rolled back and man returned to a rosy and pristine land of yore.
Along with the restoration of an independent agricultural class, Chesterton conceived measures that would mitigate specifically urban and industrial afflictions. Here his vision approximated the program advanced in recent years by democratic socialists. Large accumulations of wealth should be dispersed and prevented from re-emerging. Small businesses should be encouraged at the expense of department stores (“the monster emporium,” he called this newfangled creature) that imposed a deadening standardization and fostered an impudent disregard of the customer. (He even advocated boycotts to drive large concerns to the wall.) Worker-ownership should be promoted in factories; in the absence of this, the workers’ best hope lay in strong labor unions, an institution Chesterton vigorously defended, even during the General Strike of 1926 that plunged the middle and upper classes into terror. “In my modern state,” he remarked in The Outline of Sanity, “there would be some things nationalized, some machines owned corporately, some guilds sharing common profits, and so on, as well as many absolute owners….” Is that a “variant of democratic capitalism”?
The Outline of Sanity is no economic treatise or blueprint for a new society. Chesterton’s main intent was to jar his countrymen from a lethargy that prevented them from entertaining notions that contradicted the prevailing economic system. More than economics, distributism is about politics, specifically, power: Who exercises it? To what ends? Chesterton despised bigness, the concentration of power and resources that drowned the individual in a swamp of anonymity and impersonality. As Novak points out (with a quotation from Pope John Paul II), “What he dreaded precisely was the loss of the ‘subjective dimension of the person’….” Chesterton commented: “Now I am one of those who believe that the cure for centralization is decentralization.”
Consolidated wealth brought to a few men not only inordinate riches, but, more importantly, overweening power. Chesterton believed firmly that the ordinary man ought to control his own life. He ought not have to take peremptory orders, whether from factory bosses, government bureaucrats, meddling philanthropists, or know-it-all (and densely ignorant) intellectuals. Power, like property, should be parceled out so that a man could enjoy a modicum of liberty. This was no brief for rugged individualism on Chesterton’s part; to the contrary, it aimed at reigning in those rugged individualists — the “captains of industry” so adored by the 19th century — who rode roughshod over the masses of men.
Does this make Chesterton “sentimentally democratic,” as Russell Kirk would have it? Chesterton evinced a tough-minded realism, grounded in the belief that every man possesses the right to exercise his say in a democratic polity. If, however, to trust in the common sense of ordinary folks is sentimental, then Chesterton was a sentimentalist. He was also, as Margaret Canovan has contended, a “radical populist.” Chesterton detested paternalism, whether it debouched from the Left or the Right, from Fabian socialists and Labour politicians or Tory landlords and benevolent factory masters. He also mistrusted intellectuals who, ensconced in a tower of make-believe, enticed abstractions out of thin air and then sought to foist them upon people powerless to resist. The voice of the people might not be the voice of God, but it most certainly was the voice of the people, the masses of men who wanted only a job, a house, a wife, and children, and to be left alone by snoopers who insisted upon running other men’s lives.
Chesterton’s grounding of democracy in Christianity saved him from a merely Rousseauistic egalitarianism. The faith confirmed the fundamental equality of human beings: all are flawed by sin and all have an equal chance for salvation. Unlike so much democratic sentiment from the Enlightenment onward, Chesterton’s was not premised upon the perfectibility of humankind. Man was irrevocably a sinner, and this brokenness did not confine itself to the rich and powerful; the lowly, as well as the mighty, suffered from the consequences of the Fall. But the very ubiquity of sinfulness demanded that no man be permitted — by virtue of wealth or power — to lord it over his fellows.
Chesterton’s Christian democratic views cut close to what Emmanuel Mounier and other 20th-century thinkers have called “personalism.” Each soul — each human being — is unique and sacred in the eyes of God. No man should be treated as a means; each is an end in himself. That government is best which magnifies the sacredness of the individual soul. This depends not upon the mechanics of government, not upon merely political considerations, but upon an ethos that permeates a society and controls the way in which a man treats his brothers and sisters. Chesterton was neither theologian nor metaphysician, but he perceived the sanctity of the individual being; whatever contradicted this was wrong in the face of heaven.
Chesterton’s distributism — defying as it did the neat division between Left and Right — made him an oddity in the England of his day. Such views were equally out of place on the other side of the Atlantic, though here, too, a small band of naysayers raised a cry similar to Chesterton’s. The Outline of Sanity appeared in 1926; four years later I’ll Take My Stand was published. I once asked Andrew Lytle, the Southern agrarian most akin in many ways to Chesterton’s thinking, if distributism had influenced the formation of agrarianism. He recalled that he and his confederates in Nashville had been aware of both Chesterton and Belloc, but no, he mused, there had been no direct connection that he could recollect. The two groups came together only once — in 1936, the year of Chesterton’s death — in a symposium entitled Who Owns America?, a prescient and forceful book that united distributists and agrarians under a common flag in opposition to socialism, communism, and capitalism.
Although both movements failed to dent the regnant ideologies of the day, distributism labored under fewer impediments than did agrarianism. For one thing, Chesterton, Belloc, and their associates were not burdened with the albatross of race. In formulating their critique of society they did not have to grapple with the infirmities unique to a bi-racial social system. Implicit racism, however mild in the case of some agrarians, vitiated I’ll Take My Stand and provided its detractors with a convenient reason to dismiss the book as nothing more than Southern special pleading. In addition, some of the agrarians suffered from a plantation-complex, a malady that, at its worst, dragged them dangerously close to the Gone-with-the-Wind mode of social thought. Chesterton had no “Taras” lurking in the background to tempt his fancy.
The most momentous difference lay in religion. Not that the distributists had it and the agrarians did not, for the South was one of the most solidly Christian regions of the world, a fact confirmed by most of the contributors to I’ll Take My Stand. The distinction lies in the kind of Christianity. The agrarians took Christianity as a given, but the faith that infused their thinking was a vague Protestantism, more a religious ethos than a compelling immersion in the faith. The agrarians believed in the truth of Christianity and especially respected its manifestation as something of a folk religion among the Southern masses, but what they really valued in Christianity was the support it lent to the traditional agricultural society they cherished.
Chesterton and Belloc, by contrast, were thoroughgoing Catholics. For them, Catholicism lay at the heart of their social vision; their religion shaped their social prescription, not vice versa. Their Catholicism imbued them with a corporate vision of society that avoided the individualism that Protestantism encouraged, especially in its Baptist and Methodist guises in the South. It gave them, too, a philosophy in which God, man, and the social order cohered in an essential unity, as opposed to the Protestant tendency to lift the individual out of his social context to render his communion with God more effective. Catholic sacramentalism, that union of nature and grace in the goodness of creation, furnished Chesterton an advantage, too, for it refused the Southern Protestants’ proclivity to view the natural world as hopelessly infected with evil. Chesterton’s Catholicism squared with his social vision; for the agrarians, the religion of their native region ultimately undermined the message they proclaimed, though at the time, only Allen Tate grasped this.
At this point, those of an impatient temperament might interject: “Fine, but what does all this have to do with the here and now? Is anyone but the historian of ideas interested in what the distributists and agrarians said a half-century ago?” To phrase this objection more specifically: Does Chesterton speak to our present social predicament? I think he does — and does so as do few other figures in 20th-century political discourse. Certainly, were he alive today he would be repelled by our society. As Michael Novak admits: “I do not doubt that Chesterton, planted so firmly as he was in the Catholic pre-capitalist tradition, would dislike American society intensely….” His aversion, as Novak suggests, arose from the heart, from a visceral abhorrence of the world created by industrialism and capitalism.
The tawdriness of modern civilization appalled Chesterton. “Vulgar and huckstering commerce” had risen to ascendancy; getting, spending, and flaunting had been elevated to the supreme standard of achievement. In Utopia of Usurers he bemoaned the capitalist’s success in clawing to the top of the heap, for it had ushered in the “reign of the cad — that is, of the unlicked type that is neither the citizen nor the gentleman….” With the capitalist in command, the critic of the system — Chesterton himself, in this case — found himself a pariah. As he remarked in The End of the Armistice, a collection of essays published after his death: “Everybody whom anybody happens to dislike, for any reason connected with popular grievances, can be called a Bolshevist” — and thereby be banished from polite company. But who was the real disrupter of the social order, the capitalist or the critic? “I should not say to Mr. Rockefeller ‘I am a rebel,'” Chesterton wrote in Utopia of Usurers, “I should say ‘I am a respectable man: you are not.'”
One might be tempted to dismiss this as merely the aesthetic aversion of the litterateur who does not like machines and factories. This strain of protest threads its way through English thinking from the outbreak of the Industrial Revolution to the present. From Blake’s denunciation of “dark satanic mills,” through Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris, and on to Chesterton, the man of letters recoiled from the mechanization, impersonality, and ugliness of machine culture. In The Appetite of Tyranny Chesterton sounded this theme in speaking of the “infernal wheels of the modern civilization of factories.” But Chesterton was no primitive Luddite, no saboteur, hurling his wooden clogs into the gears of the machine. He was a dreamer and a romantic, but he was also a hardheaded realist, and he admitted that the machine had arrived to stay. “It seems to me to be quite as materialistic to be damned by a machine as saved by a machine,” he observed in The Outline of Sanity. “It seems to me quite as idolatrous to blaspheme it as to worship it.”
Not to destroy the machine, but to control it: that was what Chesterton urged. He fiercely denounced all determinisms in whatever guise they cropped up: religious, philosophical, economic, or technological. Man is a free moral agent; he can will and act; nothing is inevitable except what he permits to be inevitable through his own lassitude and inaction. Man made the machine — he must now master it, and direct it to socially beneficial ends. Beyond this, however, man’s will and determination could reverse the whole course of industrial, capitalist culture. “There is no obligation on us to be richer, or busier, or more efficient, or more productive, or more progressive, or any way worldlier or wealthier, if it does not make us happier.” These words, penned in 1926 in The Outline of Sanity, still ring with the plangency of truth over a half-century later.
In rejecting the solutions preferred by Right and Left alike, Chesterton assured the dismissal of his views as inadequate to the exigencies of the moment. But history plays tricks on those who think they are riding the wave of the future. Today, battling ideologies of Left and Right have exhausted themselves in verbal desiccation, and, in some parts of the world, in bloody stalemate, but Chesterton’s percipience and wise counsel patiently await those who seek an exit from the cul-de-sac. Perhaps his time has come.
Granted, the hope of restoring a societal base of independent small farmers has vanished, though even here, if we could expel our obsession with alleged efficiency and commercial profit, we might be surprised at what could be accomplished. Even without this facet of his prescription, much remains: his understanding of responsible liberty; his adjuration to assert the will; his commonsensical proposals for checking the abuses of capitalism and centralized power; his praise of smallness (Chesterton proclaimed “small is beautiful” long before E.F. Schumacher), of a human-scale of things; his perception of the importance of property and ownership to the ordinary member of society; his commitment to democratic self-determination. Above all, there is his apprehension of the sacredness of each individual human being, his devotion to the concept of the fundamental equality and value of all men before God.
Chesterton did not have all the answers — who does? — and some of those he supplied were inadequate or misguided. He evinced a deplorable tendency to focus his anti-capitalist wrath upon the figure of the Jewish financier, a malignant abstraction that also beguiled the populist movement of the 1890s.
He lacked an appreciation of the complex give-and-take of mundane politics; this persuaded him to divide the political world into good guys and villains, with most practicing politicians consigned to the latter category. This is a tempting — even satisfying — solution to the frustrations of democratic politics, but it is also a cheap one for the critic who stands outside the workaday grittiness of politics.
Chesterton failed to explain how the reforms he advocated could be translated into practice without destroying their intent. For example, given a government powerful enough to unseat the plutocrats, what is to ensure that it will not turn round and bedevil the ordinary citizen?
Chesterton’s main value lies not in a programmatic scheme for social transformation, but in his rebuke of the injustices of capitalism and in his prophetic outcry for men to mend their ways. Those who are dissatisfied with the nostrums and palliatives of the 20th century — those who seek a more humane society, while respecting the givens of existence and the limitations of our fallenness — will find in Chesterton wisdom, inspiration, and hope. He may yet have the last laugh on his critics, and since he enjoyed nothing so much as the exuberant joyousness of hearty laughter, he would be pleased.
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