Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Has Ralph Nader become a Distributist?—UPDATED

A new Distributist triad?
Ralph Nader getting a whole article published in The American Conservative? Wow, who'da thunk it?

Really, it's not all that strange, as: 1) Nader's article, "Who Owns America?", is drawn from his new book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left/Right Alliance to Stop the Corporate State (Nation Books, $16.43 in hardcover from Amazon), 2) it centers on a group of political conservatives in the 1930s who advocated "decentralization", and 3) as The Blogger Who Must Not Be Named points out, The American Conservative has no qualms about printing common sense even if it comes from a ritually impure source.

What interests and even fascinates me is that the article, which outlines Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence (eds. Herbert Agar and Alan Tate, ISI Books, $23.70 in hardback from Amazon), describes a position on economics, ownership and government that wouldn't be out of place in The Distributist Review. The decentralists held corporate ownership to be a corruption of private ownership, one that inevitably led to plutocracy and oligarchy. At the same time, they distrusted state ownership; whatever small faction controlled the capital resources of the country, the endgame would result in the death of liberty. The only way to stave such a result off, they believed, was to spread out the means of production, especially land ownership, as much as possible.

Now, I haven't read Nader's book — I might, gentle reader, I just might — so I don't know how many of his own conclusions would fit within the Distributist model of the ideal economic life. Judging from the title, the book appears to be more about a new cleavage cutting across traditional liberal/conservative cliques to create some unlikely allies (as happened about thirty years ago, when the National Organization of Women and the Religious Right uneasily stood shoulder-to-shoulder against pornography). But I too get the sense that some conservatives have been shaken out of free-market complacency by the Great Recession and what it's uncovered about the status quo.

Although the decentralists were dismissed by their critics as being impractical, as fighting against the inevitable wave of ever-larger industrial and financial companies empowered by modern technology, their views have a remarkable contemporary resonance given today’s globalized gigantism, absentee control, and intricate corporate statism, which are undermining both economies and workers. ...
They revolted against "high finance" at a time of multitiered holding companies, especially in the electrical and other utility industries. David Cushman Coyle, a prolific economist, put it this way in "The Fallacy of Mass Production": "In a capitalist system, mass production is usually a mere camouflage for high-finance manipulation of business, to the detriment of the commonwealth and the impoverishment of the nation."

I don't intend to get into a defense of Distributism here. If you'd like to find out more, first check out this article from Thomas Storck that explains what Distributism is not, and what it doesn't stand for — there's quite a bit of mishegoss put out by the Acton Institute and the Intercollegiate Review by people purporting to explain why Distributism could never work. Then read this introduction by John Médaille and this other primer by Tom Storck, and you'll have quite a bit to start off with. The Distributist Review also has links to contemporary sources and publications, as well as some good essays.

In any event, Nader is a ritually impure source, so having him on the Distributist side may very well boost visibility, but will also be grounds for the conservative purists to continue to dismiss Distributism out of hand. "What more do I need to say? That nutjob Nader backs it! It has to be wrong!"

Sigh. If only we could get Stephen Colbert on the bandwagon ....

Update: June 5, 2014
In his new book Chesterton's America: A Distributist History of the United States (Create Space Independent Publishing, $15.26 paperback/$9.99 Kindle), writer/editor Rod Bennett identifies Herbert Agar, through commentator Herbert Shapiro, as "[G. K.] Chesterton's leading American political disciple". One of the first things the Amazon blurb says for Chesterton's America (the "Chesterton" referenced is actually G. K.'s brother Cecil) is: "Distributism has been called 'a really bad name for a really good idea.'" Which may be why Agar et al. went with "decentralists" instead.

There are a couple more articles which bear on this one, which I commend to your thoughtful scrutiny, gentle reader. First is another article that also covers what Distributism is not, "Distributism Is Not Agrarianism", by Peter Blair in First Things.  The other is a quirky little piece by Russell A. Fox in his blog In Media Res, "How Marx Explains the Pomo-Con/Front-Porch Divide, In Four Easy Steps"

"Pomo-con", as I just found out, is short for "postmodern conservative" — "those conservatives who consider themselves contrary but still constructive partners in conserving what is best in the modern liberal state", as opposed to "those conservatives who think that the best 'conservative' response to the modern liberal state is to firmly push back against it, or simply retreat from it, in the name of local community, civic health, and family traditions — that is, of course, the Front Porch Republic." Fox considers himself more of a "left conservative" aux Norman Mailer: "[thinking] in the style of Karl Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke."

Fox's main contention is that the traditional way of framing the debate between these two subsets — "how they frame the progressive presumptions of modernity" —doesn't account for how front-porchers and Rod Dreher's "crunchy cons" can adopt positions more amenable to the left, such as environmentalism and ant-big business. Here is a crucial passage:

I think Porchers, whether they care to admit to it or not, take Marx more seriously — whether directly or through thinkers whose populism or distributism or socialism or agrarianism or localism or other criticisms of the modern liberal state borrow from, or at least implicitly echo, Marx's relentless focus on the dislocating, exploitative social power which the unregulated (and thus invariably concentrating and centralizing) flow of capital gives to those who master it. The common point of all such radical criticisms, at least insofar as this intellectual debate is concerned, is that they challenge the contented faith that, for all its numerous problems, the modern liberal order is not an enemy of community, tradition, and family. Marx saw that it was. ... [His] crystal-clear identification of the culture-depleting alienation of human beings from their places when the logic of industrial capitalism reigns without limits has shaped Porcher conservatism, making it amenable to those leftists and progressives (with their CSAs, their community organizations, their public schools, their unions, and more) who recognize that the real key to democracy and equality is not a doubling-down on individual natural rights, but rather the strengthening of the overlapping communities we are all part of.

Distributism, precisely because it's informed in large part by Catholic social doctrine, is attractive because it incorporates this "bottom up" communitarianism as part of its economic manifesto. The principle invoked is that of subsidiarity, that principle which teaches that nothing should be assigned to a greater or higher social organization which is better or more properly done by a lesser or lower social organization ... especially that social organization known as the family. In sum, I believe Fox has done a pretty good job of separating the wheat of Marx's social thought from its voluminous and poisonous chaff.