The Crisis in the 21st Century – I.III. Economy (Part II)
A maniacally independent society is a maniacally divisive society. From an unshakeable belief in scientific research which is still trying to find the smallest constituent parts of matter (and simultaneously postulating that nothing material is anything more than an aggregate of composite parts), to an exorbitant divorce rate, Western civilization cannot help but individuate everything possible. Thus, the perspective of economy as a science, as a hard science, pursues its study with man on the periphery at best and at times altogether dismissed; as with the rest of the hard sciences, economics have insisted upon keeping the individual man a perpetual bachelor. In other words, and in a great sad irony, the economic science which promotes a radically individualistic capitalism, may have some vague conception of man as mankind in its deliberations, but has no real conception of man as the individual – that is, as a dignified being in the image and likeness of God who is inherently anything but well-served by individualism.
Ultimately, capitalism, though it begins nobly in giving each man a relatively equal chance to establish his own business and succeed, comes to expect a divine flawlessness in the underprivileged man. At its worst, capitalism starves off those who fall on a streak of bad luck or begin life impoverished; at its best, it develops the impersonal pity of a governmentally redistributed handouts: “Capitalism must keep alive, by non-Capitalist methods, great masses of the population who would otherwise starve to death.”1 Does this seem improbable, untrue, a mere witty retort? Recent history would suggest otherwise. Unable to compete with lower manufacturing costs across seas, the major American car companies, all in economic trouble as a result of an oversaturated market and an economic plan built on high product turnover, have had to lay-off unparalleled numbers of employees. Poverty in Michigan due to unemployment has reached such levels that not only are countless numbers of people relying on welfare, but cities, such as Flint and Detroit and other places built around America being economically viable in the industrial mass-production of goods, having once bloated themselves to unsustainable levels on capitalistic lard, are now dying.
Built upon premises of growth and innovation, on replacing the old and same with the new and improved, capitalism has sacrificed the good of man for the good of consumptive quality of that produced. The most obvious evidence of this is the enormous number of products sold in the United States that are produced in China; and if not, in some other foreign country with cheap labor. Once dominating only the markets of cheap goods (in itself a problematic situation), technological capabilities that do not correspond to improved working conditions or better pay have enabled countries such as China to provide cheaper products of comparable quality to those produced in the United States. Well, objectors will say, why not purchase from China? What is wrong with purchasing things from China? Objectively, nothing; but the circumstances dictate otherwise. To whom is the money spent on Chinese products going? What is that money supporting? Under what conditions are the product produced? Economically speaking, these questions, left unanswered, are troubling. The answers, once given, are downright morally disturbing.4 Are these impoverished people to not only have their conditions accepted by the relative comfortable people of the West, but exacerbated by the capitalistic tendency that rewards a dehumanizing profit-seeking necessary to the preservation of the capitalist economic model? The lower a company’s overhead, the more it can focus on production, marketing, selling, research and development; but all too often, as capitalist companies grow, the only means of reducing overhead, and thus remaining competitive, is to seek means which increasingly devalue the worker: cutting corners on working materials, working conditions, worker’s compensation, anything so long as the product continues to sell and profits continue to mount.
Disregard for the workers is, however, only one of the dangers of capitalist economic principles. Coinciding with reckless in regarding human rights, capitalism perennially take a reckless approach to both the quality of the products produced and towards the environment upon which it is built. As regards the latter, there will be no speculation upon “green” technology; but it will and must be said that man is supposed to be a steward when it comes to the earth, not a conqueror. As a bridge between these two avenues of reckless capitalist driving, the prevalence of agribusiness has resulted not only in the destruction of great amounts of biological diversity, both in rural America and England, but also in significantly damaging the quality of the crops produced. The debacle of Genetically Modified Organisms – crops produced from seeds in which the genes have been modified so as to be immune to pesticides, allowing larger amounts of crops to be planted, cared for, and harvested without significant losses due to natural occurrences despite employing fewer farmers – proved quite adequately how the reckless pursuit of profit results in disaster.5 Could these companies not simply restrain themselves from constantly seeking to expand? No; for this sort of profit growth is necessary in an economic system that rewards only those companies that continue to grow and punishes those that try to maintain a level of sustenance; the small businesses (by which are meant those that have fewer than 20 or 30 employees – the Small Business Association considers businesses with up to 1500 “small” in some industries) that thrive today do so out of positively un-capitalist tendencies amongst people who have become fed up with poor quality and poor service. Nonetheless, they are in constant threat of capitulation to those larger organizations that insist upon not merely beating the competition, but ultimately destroying it.
Yet the problems with supporting such businesses are skewed not just in the realm of observable human action, of fiscal transactions, of product quality, and of , but with the fundamentals of human nature.
Aristotle once said that “man is by nature a political animal.”6 To the contemporary English-speaking mind, politics is at once indivisibly associated with but separate from economics; the former exists as sort of a bracketed channel by theories of the latter are implemented. Yet the Greek word politikos, connotes not mere politics according to the modern English-speaking conception, but to that of the citizen, that of the man who is engaged in the well-being of the societal whole. Man is a societal animal (the “animal” part is not exactly correct, but, well, that is another topic altogether). This means that he is, by his very nature, economic, insofar as economy deals explicitly and necessarily with property. But he is also social: no man after all, really is an island. Transactions of property and wealth necessarily entail some interaction on the level of humanity; otherwise there is no guarantee of justice between them. A man buying from someone he does not know, whose conditions he does not know, does not know where his product came from, how it was produced, or whether or not he paid a just price. More importantly, by helping those who are very far away, he is likely not helping himself; by which is meant he is likely not helping his community. Cheaper computers produced in China may improve man’s ability to purchase that upgrade for his satellite programming package; meanwhile, his neighbor, a man with whom he has many things in common but has never met, whose son is best friends with the first man’s son, a few houses down is put out of his local custom computer business because his products cost a little bit more money. It happens. It also happens that men who work hard day and night support other men and their families; the work of the low level employee in a thoroughly capitalist system inevitably results in the increased earnings of those higher in the company.
What has been outlined here, in a via negativa (negative way, that is, by showing what is lacking), is the economic system known as distributism. As with many good things, it is misunderstood by almost everyone. Socialists see it as too far to the right and capitalists as too far to the left. Socialists and capitalists, however, have respectively gone so far to the left and so far to the right that, in both situations, the means of production are in the control of the relatively few. Hilaire Belloc, in his economic magnum opus titled The Servile State, defines the unjust economic theories ironic collision thus: “That arrangement of society in which so considerable a number of the families and individuals are constrained by positive law to labour for the advantage of other families and individual as to stamp the whole community with the mark of such labour we call The Servile State.”7 Contrariwise, distributism stands in polar opposition this servile state, for it insists upon the means of production being in the hands of the many. This stance is, and long has been, vehemently denounced as economically unviable, impractical, and idealistic. In the sense of economics as a pure science – divorced from its natural spouse the social, societal, political, economical man – it is indeed unviable, impractical, and idealistic, for its principle premise is neither monetary profit nor material gain, but the respect for the dignity of the human person: “the difference between servitude and freedom, appreciable in a thousand details of actual life, is most glaring in this: that the free man can refuse his labour and use that refusal as an instrument wherewith to bargain; while the slave has no such instrument or power to bargain at all, but is dependent for his well-being upon the custom of society, backed by the regulation of such of its laws as may protect and guarantee the slave.”8
But now the question must be asked: in this pervasively servile state, how can man be freed?
1 Belloc, Hillaire, The Servile State. (from memory; no text to hand).
4 http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=109_house_hearings&docid=f:26031.wais – http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec07/china_11-20.html – http://www.nlcnet.org/article.php?id=613
5 Cf. Pearce, Joseph, Small is Still Beautiful (Wilmington: ISI Books) pp. 154-190. Pearce’s book also discusses the capitalist conquest of small brewers and subsequent microbrew revolution on pp. 103-115.
6 Aristotle, Politics (New York: Penguin Books, 1992) 59.
7 Belloc, Hilare, Belloc (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1970) 175.