fragments of an attempted writing.

it didn't work then. it won't work today.

I asked my friend Corneliu, a Romanian living in America who is also a communist (as well as an Orthodox Christian), what he thought of this post on Distributism in Eastern Europe.  This is his response:

It has got no chances in today's Romania. This is a pet project of two or three Orthodox intellectuals, two of them living in the US. As the article says Romanian villages are depopulated of young people. I have no statistics but based on w...hat I have seen back home already a very large part of the agricultural land has already been bought by Austrian or Italian speculators "investors" and sits there uncultivated in hopes of being re-sold at higher profit, although the economic crisis now might have spoiled the plans a bit.
Plus even the inter-war land reform as good as it was was still not enough and out of 2.309 mil peasants without land in 1921 only 1.400 millions received some, and only small lots, in general, (well) under 10 ha. I still have grand-parents that remember how life was for a peasant in the inter-war Romania. General poverty, children working both in the fields and, where it was possible, in the factories that sprung up in the country-side (in gp' s village kids worked in a brick factory) or they were sent as servants to the bourgeois the gentry or the few rich peasants. That was the rule, not the exception. G-M tells us that although they worked the little land they had and also in the factory, she couldn't even afford a pair of shoes in winter but was walking barefoot through snow. Illiteracy among the peasantry was really close to 100%.  
Anyways, the point is that, in spite of the abuses that took place during communism, life for people like these only improved after Communism. They succeeded in eliminating most of the crass poverty that was the rule before.  The point is that in the inter-war period the Romanian village was still dominated by Capital.
 It's also ironic that these Romanian distributists are quite anti-Catholic, yet, at the same they claim the heritage of the "National Peasant Party" which was, basically, the Greek-Catholic party of inter-war Romania.  Also, all that theological personalist drivel - how is it going to be translated into concrete politics?

When thinking about the fantastic romanticism involved with applying failed peasant oriented economic programs of the early 20th century to today's economic situation, I am reminded of this bit from Orwell on Chesterton, from Orwell's 1945 Notes on Nationalism:

Ten or twenty years ago, the form of nationalism most closely corresponding to Communism today was political Catholicism. Its most outstanding exponent — though he was perhaps an extreme case rather than a typical one — was G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who [c]hose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repetition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians.’ Every book that he wrote, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan. But Chesterton was not content to think of this superiority as merely intellectual or spiritual: it had to be translated into terms of national prestige and military power, which entailed an ignorant idealisation of the Latin countries, especially France. Chesterton had not lived long in France, and his picture of it — as a land of Catholic peasants incessantly singing the Marseillaise over glasses of red wine — had about as much relation to reality as Chu Chin Chow has to everyday life in Baghdad. And with this went not only an enormous overestimation of French military power (both before and after 1914-18 he maintained that France, by itself, was stronger than Germany), but a silly and vulgar glorification of the actual process of war. Chesterton's battle poems, such as Lepanto or The Ballad of Saint Barbara, make The Charge of the Light Brigade read like a pacifist tract: they are perhaps the most tawdry bits of bombast to be found in our language. The interesting thing is that had the romantic rubbish which he habitually wrote about France and the French army been written by somebody else about Britain and the British army, he would have been the first to jeer. In home politics he was a Little Englander, a true hater of jingoism and imperialism, and according to his lights a true friend of democracy. Yet when he looked outwards into the international field, he could forsake his principles without even noticing he was doing so. Thus, his almost mystical belief in the virtues of democracy did not prevent him from admiring Mussolini. Mussolini had destroyed the representative government and the freedom of the press for which Chesterton had struggled so hard at home, but Mussolini was an Italian and had made Italy strong, and that settled the matter. Nor did Chesterton ever find a word to say about imperialism and the conquest of coloured races when they were practised by Italians or Frenchmen. His hold on reality, his literary taste, and even to some extent his moral sense, were dislocated as soon as his nationalistic loyalties were involved.
Obviously there are considerable resemblances between political Catholicism, as exemplified by Chesterton, and Communism. So there are between either of these and for instance Scottish nationalism, Zionism, Antisemitism or Trotskyism. It would be an oversimplification to say that all forms of nationalism are the same, even in their mental atmosphere, but there are certain rules that hold good in all cases. 

 Orwell goes on to describe those rules in the essay.

The "a land of Catholic peasants incessantly singing the Marseillaise over glasses of red wine" line strikes to the heart of would-be hobbit politics. It's not that distributists and other third wayers have bad motives necessarily for wanting to have family oriented agrarian societies.  I think some of them, despite their typical middle class levels of consumption, their multiple cars in their households, and their air conditioning and access to quality medical technologies, really do think that they want to live agrarian lifestyles.  In my experience, very few of the people advancing distributism on the public square today have ever actually lived doing subsistence farming or working the land in a sustainable, traditional manner.  In fact, I would say that a minority of the ones I have known have ever done something as relatively simple as have a garden supply more than, say, 20% of their family's caloric intake in a given year.  But still, you can't fault them for getting dreamy between reading Chesterton and watching the next Peter Jackson installment, which they will, out of religious obligation, parse and critique until the horse is so dead that it is now glue.

I used to think of my own childhood in a rather idyllic fashion.  I'm still very thankful for it.  I knew extraordinary people in the rural cultures of my youth - in a place where you could usually only get a couple of TV stations and over an hour away from the closest mall.  But I've needed to remind myself that my family life was stable, and though we struggled with health issues and financial issues and the like, my childhood experiences were not nearly as brutal as many of the people I grew up with - in a county with very high poverty rates, and no shortage of all kinds of abuse, and few jobs.  Everyone my age wanted to get out - college and the military were the ways to do that.  Of those who didn't make it out, it would take me some time to try to count how many of them I know to be dead today - drunk driving, suicide, overdose, violent death, illness, etc.  It was and is a hard place to live, worse today because of cable TV, low wage jobs taking away most of the few decent wage jobs that were left there, and the entrance of meth.

Another thing to think about.  You know all the extraordinary characters in Wendell Berry novels?  I've met people like Old Jack, and I cherish them.  But in the rural parts of my youth their were also a hell of a lot of people like Old Jack's greedy malevolent neighbors.  There were a lot of scumbags, frauds, wasters, cheats, and brutes.  Poverty and insularity are not a good mix.  I sometimes think that the distributist or Berry disciple thinks that the agrarian village of the (no, it can't be) utopian future is going to have a healthy mix of hard working earthy types like unto the "good" Berry characters and those who are more, well, pathetic.  But I'm not sure that is the experience of a lot of people who have lived in rural agrarian cultures.  I'm sure it varies quite a bit from place to place, but I think for a lot of people living in relatively closed small rural communities it was a living hell, and not just because of material reasons, but also because of social realities and limitations, which explains why so many were bent on getting out of there and coming to America or moving to the city, what have you.

Urban life may offer no panacea, for sure, but I think that this notion that a move toward agrarian structures and a heavily localized co-operative system* within cities is based on the sorts of romanticisms that Chesterton suffered from - a man who was famously absent minded and simply had no idea what rural life or factory life was like for the vast majority of people who had to live it.    Hobbit politics requires hobbits, who maybe get in fights in the pub or steal the occasional fireworks, but Tolkien didn't tell us much about what hobbits did to deal with incest, crop losses, agricultural speculation, landowner-worker relations, sex roles within marriage and family, social enfranchisement, murder within the village, social strife and so forth.  It seems hobbits don't have to worry much about these sorts of things, but humans in nearly all societies do.  It's easy to see how a person given to distributism or hobbit politics veers towards fascism when the realpolitik shit hits the fan.  Many modern fascisms have given a rhetorical nod anyway to certain third way or distributist themes.  As capitalism becomes less and less appealing to many people in coming years, including many middle class American Christians looking for something other than economic Darwinism of whatever libertarian variety and other than liberal or socialist bureaucratic forms, one wonders what ideological direction they will tend toward.  A Christian democratic socialism with less of a bureaucratic emphasis?  Perhaps, but there are limitations there as well, and a fair amount of Europe has seen their Christian social dem groups disintegrate or fall from power or political effectiveness in the last generation, and I wonder if it is seen as rather impotent in dealing with late capitalism.  Impotent and capitulating.

*for a Christmas appropriate account of private collectives, which replaced a large government owned apparatus, perhaps not handling things so well see this story.  


  1. I'm ignoring the politics behind this post, but: My father grew up on a farm in a very small town in the deep south. His father was an electrician, but they didn't have power at his house the first years of his life. Whenever one of us gets romantic about country life, i.e. hobbit fever, he just tells us matter-of-factly that he left that behind and never wants to go back, even for a day.

    I know you've turned your back on agrarianism now, but wouldn't you say there is something like a kinship of origins between it and communism?

  2. It depends upon what is meant by agrarianism. Some folks upon hearing of my views of such things as raw milk and ag regulation and the dismantling of Monsanto and incentives for small farms would consider me an agrarian.

    It depends upon what you mean with regard to the kinship of origins. With communism proper (paris commune, Marx, etc.), not so much. With communism in the broadest sense (the Lollards, the communitarians in the peasant revolts, etc.), sure. Historically the two are sometimes disparate and sometimes close. In Bulgaria, when the peasant party (Bulgarian Agrarian National Union) which distributists like Allan Carlson like to claim as one of their own was in power (and before and for a spell after), it often worked hand in hand with communists, and they shared many similar interests. Some 20th century takes on communism shared a lot in common with the programs of the European peasant parties. Of course with Asia and other Maoist fronts there is the whole Maoist relationship with the peasantry, but that is a completely different story.

  3. "Hobbit politics requires hobbits, who maybe get in fights in the pub or steal the occasional fireworks... It seems hobbits don't have to worry much about these sorts of things, but humans in nearly all societies do."

    I really don't understand this "hobbit politics" concept. How can a bunch of fantasy novels written in the mid-twentieth century and set in an magical version of the early Middle Ages be a model for 21st century political economy? It makes about as much sense as basing a country's STEM program on "The Jetsons" or building a national defense program around the idea depicted in "Sailor Moon." To me, it seems like "hobbit politics" are an attempt to ignore the realities of the world we live in, with its racism, sexism, classism, imperialism and other social ills to indulge in intellectual fantasies of the most absurd kind.

  4. lol, I love the term "hobbit politics." Cracks me up, in fact.

    I would not want to go back to the land, for the simple reason that I'm not tough enough to handle it. I freak whenever we lose our power for more than a few hours.

    My FIL grew up on a hog farm right outside Louisville. (They were tenant farmers.) They had no electricity and no heat source except a wood-burning cookstove. The kids slept in the attic, and in the winter, they would just about fly into bed in order to get under the covers and snuggled up against each other as quickly as possible. The air in the attic was ice-cold, and so was the floor. Thanks but no thanks.

    Sometimes I fear that coming economic collapse will reduce us to a peasant lifestyle. But this is something I dread, not something I welcome. Our forebears were tough. We are woosses. A society like ours is much more fragile than a peasant society, but that's just the point: We are dependent on advanced technologies; and, if they were to collapse, we would not have a clue what to do. You can't just start felling trees with axes and growing potatoes in soil fit only for tobacco overnight. You kind of have to know what you're doing.


  5. Bill Mollison and Permaculture (see doco 'Global Gardener')

    I don't know, looks OK compared with wage slavery. Those with nous make it work. Distributists for ever.


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