Saturday, 26 July 2014

HILAIRE BELLOC: THE SERVILE STATE AND THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF DISTRIBUTISM

July 27th is the birthday of Hilaire Belloc, one of the great radical traditionalists.



From the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century until the era of the Great Depression immediately preceding the commencement of the Second World War, the most enduring internal conflict within the nations of the West was rooted in what was then called the “social question.” The growth of industrialization and the dispossession of the agrarian peasant classes during the time of the enclosure movement had created within the industrializing nations a massive proletarian class of permanently pauperized laborers and the deplorable social conditions which accompanied the growth of this class.

Throughout the nineteenth century, numerous potential remedies to the condition of the working classes were proposed and the labor, socialist, communist, and anarchist movements developed into powerful political forces during this time. It was into this political and socioeconomic environment that Hilaire Belloc was born in 1870. Belloc was born in France to an English mother and French father and was raised in England. Throughout his eighty-two years of life, Belloc would exhibit many talents. He was an immensely prolific writer (it was once said that he “wrote a library” during his time), poet, and debater. He was an accomplished historian. Belloc was fond of racing yachts and wrote extensively on travel. He was also a politician at one point in his life and for a time held a seat in the English parliament. From his experience as a parliamentarian, Belloc came to regard the pretenses of the liberal democratic state as one rooted in the popular representation of the people as a sham. Parliamentary democracy, in Belloc’s view, was simply a mask for the rule of the plutocratic class. Perhaps above all, Belloc was a staunch defender of Catholic orthodoxy and produced many apologetic works on behalf of his own faith tradition and challenged the secularism of his intellectual contemporaries such as George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. [1]

Though Belloc opposed the secular outlook of the Fabian intellectuals and the more radical Marxists, he shared their concern with solving the problems of labor and the social ills brought about by the industrial age. It was out of this concern that Belloc and his friend, fellow literary figure, and fellow Catholic apologist Gilbert Keith Chesterton formed a unique and always small but intellectually original movement known as “distributism.” The philosophical basis of distributism was outlined in two books, one by Chesterton and one by Belloc. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World was published in 1910. Its thesis was that the paternalistic welfare state proposed by the progressive liberal and social democratic reformers of the era was not inconsistent with the continued rule of the plutocrats. Rather, a welfare state of the kind the Fabians suggested could be utilized by the ruling classes to pacify and further subordinate the working classes. Belloc continued with this theme in his 1912 book The Servile State. Belloc generally accepted the criticisms of capitalism offered by the socialists and Marxists, but argued that socialism would not have the effect of liberating the working classes. Instead, the welfare state would reduce the workers and the masses generally to the level of state dependents with the state continuing to be controlled by the capitalist plutocracy.

Medieval charity
As devout Catholic traditionalists, both Belloc and Chesterton naturally had the tendency to romanticize the social system of the medieval era, centered as it was in the Catholic Church. The guilds and agrarian peasant traditions of the Middle Ages became the model for Belloc’s and Chesterton’s and by extension the distributist movement’s theoretical foundations for social reform. The ambition of the distributists was not to nationalize the means of productions in the manner favored by the Marxists or to radically expand the level of state intervention into the economy and into society in the name of social welfare. Rather, the distributists preferred the opposite approach of redistributing the means of production into as many hands as possible, essentially making everyone into a capitalist. Distributist ideas continued to be outlined in Chesterton’s paper G. K.’s Weekly and the Distributist League was founded in 1926. Most of the core members of the league were either former socialists who had converted to Catholicism or devout Catholics who were simply concerned with the social question. The league was never a particularly large organization and never held more than two thousand actual members at any one time. Distributism was an intellectual movement rather than a political or activist one.

Distributism is a concept that is more interesting for its ideas than its influence. It was a tendency that offered an uncompromising critique of capitalism yet firmly rejected virtually all efforts or proposals to remedy the ills of capitalism through bureaucracy and statism. Not only the socialist parties but also the labor unions were criticized by the distributists on these grounds. Belloc, Chesterton, and the distributists shared the concern of classical liberals for the preservation of private property and the liberty of the individual against the state while simultaneously expressing concern for the conditions of labor and related social injustices. Capitalism in their view had the effect of a net reduction in liberty not only because the laboring masses were dependent on the capitalists for their subsistence, but also because capitalism was inherently unstable and therefore necessitated state intervention in order to address its social dislocations. Further, the capitalists and plutocrats themselves preferred state regulation of the kind granting monopoly privileges. Contrary to the supposed laissez faire ideal of capitalism, the actual practice of capitalism went hand in hand with the growth of statism.

The distributists’ criticisms of capitalism were not merely economic in nature. In their view, both capitalism and the proposed socialist alternatives were equally deficient in their neglect of the spiritual welfare of mankind and their limitation of social concerns to matters of material interests only. For the capitalists, greed and material acquisition had become the highest values. For the socialists, satisfying the material needs of the working classes was their only concern. Neither perspective satisfactorily addressed the dehumanizing nature of either proletarianism as it existed under capitalism or the proposed statist alternatives offered by the socialists. The distributists were concerned about the effect of capitalism on family, cultural, and communal life. By forcing the workmen to spend long hours laboring in factories, capitalism was essentially taking fathers and husbands away from their families and the distributists noted that the plutocratic classes would at times endorse women’s emancipation movements in order to make female labor more readily exploitable. The concerns of many traditionalists of the era regarding the impact of industrialization and commercial society on high culture were also shared by the distributists and the distributists likewise lamented the decline of small shops and independent craftsmen brought on by the rise of department stores and chain stores.

Emancipated women
Though they were critical of the dehumanizing effects of the machine age, the distributists were not advocates of a return to a pre-industrial state in the manner advocated by the Luddites. Rather, they thought that with a widespread distribution of ownership of productive property, the laboring classes would be able to achieve autonomy and independence through such arrangements as industrial guilds operated as cooperatives of small producers and the reestablishment and growth of small businesses and small farms. Indeed, the economic ideals of the distributists were very similar to those of the classical anarchists and both movements favored many similar economic arrangements such as worker cooperatives, mutual banks, and independent peasant communities. The American social reformer and devout Catholic Dorothy Day even attempted a synthesis of distributist and anarchist ideas with her Catholic Worker movement. Yet the Catholic traditionalists and romantic medievalists who comprised the distributist movement generally found themselves at odds with the anarchists and their anti-clericalism and Enlightenment rationalism. However, the differences were primarily philosophical, cultural, and religious rather than economic.[2]

Belloc advanced an interesting theory concerning the development of capitalism in England and by extension throughout the world during the Industrial Revolution. He argued that capitalism took the particular form that it assumed during its developmental era largely as a consequence of the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII during the sixteenth century. The monasteries had previously been the basis of cultural, educational, and charitable life in England and their suppression had created a gap in the social fabric whose consequences were made manifest during the early industrial age. First, the disappearance of the monasteries had the effect of removing the social safety net and creating the conditions for state assumption of charitable responsibilities in the way first demonstrated by the Poor Laws and which later found their full fruition in the welfare state. Likewise, the decline in the power and influence of the Church that was the natural result of the closure of the monasteries undermined the ability of the Church to serve as a constraining force on the growing power of industrial capitalists. Lastly, the destruction of monastic life had the effect of creating a spiritual vacuum that would later be filled by the materialistic values of the growing commercial society. [3]

No longer challenging plutocracy.
George Orwell noted in 1946 that Belloc’s The Servile State had been quite prescient in its analysis of the likely consequences of state socialism when it was published thirty-four year earlier.[4] The legacy of state socialism has been the creation of the hard totalitarian regimes associated with Communism, Fascism, and Nazism, and the soft totalitarianism of the Western welfare states. Belloc has since been demonstrated to have been correct when he suggested that socialism would only have the effect of maintaining plutocratic rule while pacifying the population at large by making them into wards of the provider state. Though living standards have certainly risen in the West since Belloc’s time, all of the modern nations now face severe fiscal crises generated in large part by the prevalence of the provider state. The rise of the global economy has brought with it the advance of proletarianism in previously pre-industrial societies on the periphery and generated a process of re-proletarianization in the nations where industrialization is long established, particularly in the United States. The massive transnational capitalist enterprises and financial institutions are now eclipsing the power of even nation-states themselves. In some ways, it would seem that the problems that Belloc and his distributist colleagues sought to address are now as prevalent as ever.


NOTES:

[1] Jahn, Karl (2000). Distributism. Archived at http://karljahn.tripod.com/tan/distributism.htm. Acccessed on October 8, 2012
.
[2] Dorothy Day. Articles on Distributism-2. The Catholic Worker, July–August 1948, 1, 2, 6.

[3] Bradshaw, Brendan (1974). The Dissolution of the Religious Orders in Ireland under Henry VIII. London: Cambridge University Press.

[4] George Orwell. Second Thoughts on James Burnham in Polemic No 3 May 1946.


Originally published in Belloc: Thoughts & Perspectives, Volume Twelve (edited by Troy Southgate) published by Black Front Press.

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