August 8th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Economic bounce masks deep structural crisis

ENERGY: What can Australia do when the fuel runs out?

EDITORIAL: Overseas lesson in energy conservation

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Turnbull's judgement under a cloud

SCHOOLS: The choice so few parents can afford to make

MARRIAGE: The personal and social costs of cohabitation

OPINION: Keeping marriage between a man and a woman

CHINA: Cracks appear in China's detested one-child policy

POLITICAL IDEAS: Distributist responses to the global economic crisis

WAR ON TERROR: What will we learn from the Jakarta bombings?

EUROPE: Obama told: don't abandon central and eastern Europe

OBITUARY: Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski dies at 81

REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH: Protest at News Weekly article on East Timor

Tony Abbott on divorce (letter)

Time for a people's bank? (letter)

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Genderless child-rearing experiment / Hostility towards masculinity / Dear baby-boomers ... / Shopkeepers honoured

BOOK REVIEW: POMPEII: The Life of a Roman Town, by Mary Beard

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Distributist responses to the global economic crisis

by special report

News Weekly, August 8, 2009
Distributism is a political creed which rejects both massive state ownership and unregulated free markets as economic solutions. It offers, not a middle way between socialism and capitalism, but a distinct third way based on decentralised decision-making and the promotion of widespread ownership of property.

Distributism as a political philosophy was first formulated almost a century ago by Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton.

A new generation of Distributist thinkers from around the world gathered in St Benet's Hall, Oxford, England, on Saturday, July 11, for a conference organised by the G.K. Chesterton Institute from Seton Hall University, New Jersey.

Chairing the meeting was a New Orleans attorney, John Odoms, who described the small Virginian town of his youth as having been done in by "the Chamber of Commerce model", which focused on growth at any cost heedless of the consequent social instability.

The opening address was delivered by Phillip Blond, the United Kingdom's self-styled "Red Tory", who heads the progressive conservatism project at the British think-tank, Demos. An Anglican theologian and political philosopher, he described his conversion to Distributist ideas through reading Hilaire Belloc's The Restoration of Property and Chesterton's An Outline of Sanity.

Mr Blond offered a detailed analysis of the origins of the global financial meltdown of 2008. He emphasised that the decline in the economic status of most Americans and Britons actually began in 1973. This deterioration was covered up at first by inflation; then by the flow of married women into the paid workforce; and finally by a massive growth in personal debt, particularly in housing.

He said that housing was the "only secured form of property available to ordinary people. ... This form of asset-acquisition itself became for working families an unsustainable burden and ultimately for many a very real financial catastrophe."

Mr Blond noted that the "Anglo-Saxon paradigm initiated by Thatcher, Reagan and Clinton" had progressively removed all limits on capital movement and control. He said: "All capital, whether local, regional or national, became global." The "securitisation of debt" after 2000 then created a vast new form of instability, which finally unravelled in the northern autumn of 2008.

Looking to the future, Mr Blond declared the gap between neo-conservatism and Marxism to be quite small; and he praised Pope Benedict XVI's new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, as a decisive repudiation of neo-liberal economics and an open embrace of Distributist principles. He urged Distributists to give more thought to how their goals can be made relevant to urban majorities.

Goal of home ownership

The second speaker was founder and international secretary of the World Congress of Families, Dr Allan C. Carlson, a Lutheran. He defended the Distributist goal of home ownership by all responsible families from current charges that this had brought on the financial meltdown.

The real problems in the American housing market, he argued, dated back to the 1970s, when the purpose of home ownership began to shift from providing decent shelter for a family in a safe and stable neighbourhood toward "investment", resale-ability and constantly "buying up".

Moreover, US regulators after 1970 shifted federal subsidies away from help for young families toward "under-served", "non-family" households. This stripped American housing policy of any moral underpinning, and actually appears to have encouraged the practice of divorce and cohabitation.

Dr Carlson continued: "The winner in all this will be the Servile State: Hilaire Belloc's label for a system where monopoly capitalists, financiers and government bureaucrats merge into an entity practising state capitalism. Under its terms the capitalists and bankers gain order and protection of their wealth and property while property-less workers receive welfare benefits specifically tied to their wage labour, such as unemployment insurance, which provides security but also confirms their servile status.

"For his part, Chesterton called this arrangement a 'Business Government' which, he said, 'will combine everything that is bad in all the plans for a better world. ... There will be nothing left but a loathsome thing called Social Service."

Dr Carlson proceeded to give examples of the Servile State at work in America, Russia and China. He also explored the curious new subjugation of women found - most remarkably - in Scandinavia, where the Business Government has essentially socialised "women's work". He said, "Women find servility in their strange, new, functional marriage to the state."

Professor Salvador Antunano of Francisco de Vitoria University in Madrid, Spain, explored the influence of Distributist ideas and possibilities in Spain. He traced the roots of the current economic crisis to "the insufficient anthropological basis of capitalism", where "man becomes an isolated reality". In turn, this orientation undermined the family, "the first place for culture, the first school of values and morals, [and] the first place for socialisation". He praised Distributism for defending the family "as the very heart" of society.

Professor Antunano lambasted the current socialist government of Spain for its legal assaults on marriage and family; and he described some efforts to apply Distributist ideas in his country, notably the COVAP cooperative farms in Cordoba, Andalucia, southern Spain.

Referring to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, he also stressed the role of "Distributist hope". He said: "There is strength that works in history. ... It is possible, then, that in today's crisis we Distributists and we families may have the feelings of Aragorn and his men just before the final battle for Middle Earth. If we look at our swords, we will find them fragile and weak in comparison with the nazgul and orcs. But something so little like a hobbit and so odd like Gollum can change history. For this reason, in the current crisis at the very gates of Mordor, what seems to be our end may be actually our beginning."

French writer Philippe Maxence, editor of the Paris-based Catholic magazine L'Homme Nouveau ("The New Man"), delivered the final formal paper. Essentially, he argued that until about 60 years ago France had avoided submersion into global capitalism. As late as 1950, France remained "a society of peasants and artisans".

Then, the independent farmer-peasants were undone by a national policy to mechanise farming. During the 1970s, "it was the turn of the small shopkeeper to be threatened by the expansion of the supermarkets".

The current economic crisis in France, he said, "demonstrates the perversity of a system which subordinates politics to economics and economics to finance, and to the little games of speculators whose only horizon is self-enrichment to the detriment of the common good".

He continued: "For France, the current crisis is also revelatory. It shows that our country has turned its back on itself. France was an agricultural country, nourished by peasant virtues, a country of artisans, who were part of multiple and diverse social networks. They were hardly rich but they were to a great extent independent and property owning, and they owned what was necessary for them to make a living. ...

"Now such a France is gone. Today under the sway of globalisation, France is part of a society which has always been denounced by Distributists, a type of society which - excuse me for saying it - we call in France the Anglo-Saxon model."

And yet, Mr Maxence now found it a wonderful paradox that the Distributist response, which originated in England, "offers France the chance to reconnect with its own traditions".

This feature is based on Dr Allan Carlson's article, "A Distributist view of the global economic crisis: a report": a report", in Front Porch Republic, July 12, 2009.

Full copies of the papers delivered at the Oxford conference are expected to be published in The Chesterton Review.

POSTSCRIPT: Phillip Blond's "Red Toryism"

Earlier this year, Phillip Blond, who spoke at the Oxford conference on Distributism, launched a radical conservative manifesto, which he styled Red Toryism. Here are some short extracts:

Red Toryism

The idea of a Tory distributist state is not new; indeed the phrase "property-owning democracy" was first coined in 1923 by the Conservative MP Noel Skelton. Anthony Eden used it too in his celebrated speech to the 1946 party conference, and the philosophy enthused both Churchill and Thatcher. ... Communitarian civic conservatism - or red Toryism ... is more radical than anything emerging from today's left and should be the way forward for the right. The opportunity to restore a radical, and progressive, Toryism must not be lost to the economic downturn.

Disempowered citizenry

Look at the society we have become: we are a bi-polar nation, a bureaucratic, centralised state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry. The intermediary structures of a civilised life have been eliminated, and with them the Burkean ideal of a civic, religious, political or social middle, as the state and the market accrue power at the expense of ordinary people.

Repudiation of social ties

The liberal idea of man is then, first of all, an idea of nothing: not family, not ethnicity, not society or nation. But real people are formed by the society of others. For liberals, autonomy must precede everything else, but such a "self" is a fiction. ... Left-libertarianism repudiated all ties of kith and kin and, though it was utopian in aspiration, its true legacy has been the dystopia of divided families, unparented children and the lazy moral relativism of the liberal professional elite.

State ownership

Nationalisation was a failure on its own terms, even more so because working people were never enfranchised by it. It created remote new behemoths, with popular disengagement from the levers of power.

American business model

Conservatism must not, however, repeat the American error of preaching "morals plus the market" while ignoring the fact that economic liberalism has often been a cover for monopoly capitalism and is therefore just as socially damaging as left-wing statism.

Retail monopolies

In the name of competition we have happily handed over our high streets to Tesco, strangling local commerce. ... Our fishmongers, butchers, and bakers are driven out - converting a whole class of owner-occupiers into low-wage earners, employed by supermarkets. And, once you have a monopoly, it demands that other monopolies serve it, just as Tesco demands economies of scale from its suppliers, driving out small and medium-size farms.

Extracts from Phillip Blond's article, "Rise of the red Tories", Prospect (London), Issue 155, February 2009.

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