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The second coming of Distributism

David Gibson catches up with Phillip Blond in America. [1]He notes that Phillip is a leading apostle of neo-distributism, a “third way” that rejects the excesses of Big Government and Big Business in favor of localist solutions. Excerpts:

Distributism [2] has arguably become the most intriguing idea to emerge out of the ruins of the early 21st-century economic collapse, in no small part because it has the greatest potential for bridging the current ideological chasms in the United States.

… But can distributism find an audience for radical change if it appeals to the grievances of both extremes but rejects their remedies?

Blond is unabashedly small-c conservative. His theories are inspired by religious ideals, but he speaks openly about the centrality of moral renewal to restoring society. That makes him suspect to many on the left. But there is vigorous opposition on the right to Blond’s critiques of free market dogmas, not to mention his openness to a key role for government in many sectors.

Blond says, for example, that he was stunned by the “shockingly poor” urban and transportation infrastructure he found riding the train from Washington to New York.

America’s cultural and political infrastructure is no better, Blond said. If Americans do not call a truce in the culture wars and end the “endemic political paralysis” caused by a system of checks and balances and no shared norms, then progress will be hard to achieve.

Americans, he said, have to sit down and figure out who they want to be as a nation — and that’s a long-term answer that may be hard to achieve in this short-term crisis.

“It’s very difficult to see what Americans can group around,” he told Religion News Service. “You need a new culture, or a new commonality around which you can associate and create.”

“And the problem is you don’t have that because you have culture wars. And once you have culture wars you have a society that fragments … which means you become a society that can’t solve problems. Which is very worrying.”

He’s right. I wish I could see a way out of this. If you haven’t seen UVA sociologist James Davison Hunter’s seminal early-1990s book “Culture Wars,” [3]you really should. It’s still quite relevant to the things we struggle with today. It all goes back to what Blond’s NYC host Philip K. Howard identified as the problem of Authority. Read MacIntyre, or at least this bit about him [4], excerpted below:

MacIntyre begins After Virtue by asking the reader to engage in a thought experiment: “Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe…. A series of environmental disasters [which] are blamed by the general public on the scientists” leads to rioting, scientists being lynched by angry mobs, the destruction of laboratories and equipment, the burning of books, and ultimately the decision by the government to end science instruction in schools and universities and to imprison and execute the remaining scientists. Eventually, enlightened people decide to restore science, but what do they have to work with? Only fragments: bits and pieces of theories, chapters of books, torn and charred pages of articles, hazy memories and damaged equipment with functions that are unclear, if not entirely forgotten. These people, he argues, would combine these fragments as best they could, inventing theories to connect them as necessary. People would talk and act as though they were doing “science,” but they would actually be doing something very different from what we currently call science. From our point of view, in a world where the sciences are intact, their “science” would be full of errors and inconsistencies, “truths” which no one could actually prove, and competing theories which were incompatible with one another. Further, the supporters of these theories would be unable to agree on any way to resolve their differences.

Why does MacIntyre ask us to imagine such a world? “The hypothesis I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described” (After Virtue 2, After Virtue 256). People in the modern liberal capitalist world talk as though we are engaged in moral reasoning, and act as though our actions are chosen as the result of such reasoning, but in fact neither of these things is true. Just as with the people working with “science” in the imaginary world that MacIntyre describes, philosophers and ordinary people are working today with bits and pieces of philosophies which are detached from their original pre-Enlightenment settings in which they were comprehensible and useful. Current moral and political philosophies are fragmented, incoherent, and conflicting, with no standards that can be appealed to in order to evaluate their truth or adjudicate the conflicts between them – or at least no standards that all those involved in the disputes will be willing to accept, since any standard will presuppose the truth of one of the contending positions. To use an analogy that MacIntyre does not use, one might say that it is as if we tore handfuls of pages from books by Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Danielle Steele, Mark Twain, and J.K. Rowling, threw half of them away, shuffled the rest, stapled them together, and then tried to read the “story” that resulted. It would be incoherent, and any attempt to describe the characters, plot, or meaning would be doomed to failure. On the other hand, because certain characters, settings, and bits of narrative would reappear throughout, it would seem as though the story could cohere, and much effort – ultimately futile – might be expended in trying to make it do so. This, according to MacIntyre, is the moral world in which we currently live.

One consequence of this situation is that we have endless and interminable debates within philosophy and, where philosophy influences politics, within politics as well (After Virtue 6-8, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry 7 and Chapter 1). MacIntyre demonstrates this with regard to philosophers by a comparison of the positions of John Rawls [5] and Robert Nozick [6] on what justice is, positions which are mutually exclusive, but internally coherent. Each conclusion follows reasonably from its premises (After Virtue Chapter 17). Each position has many adherents who can point out the flaws in the other but cannot successfully defend their own position against attack. In the political world, one of the examples MacIntyre uses is the abortion issue in the United States. One side of the debate, drawing largely on a particular interpretation of Christian ethics, asserts that abortion is murder and hence is both morally unacceptable and deserving of legal punishment; the other side, usually drawing either on a conception of privacy or of rights or both, asserts that women should have the right to make a private decision about terminating a pregnancy, and therefore abortion, while possibly morally problematic, deserves the protection of the law. In either case, the conclusion follows logically, that is, reasonably, from the premises. But the starting premises are incompatible, and there is no way to gain everyone’s agreement to either set of premises, nor is there even any agreement on what kind of argument might be able to gain a consensus. (And a look at public opinion polls about abortion taken in the United States shows that the percentage of people for or against legal abortion in particular circumstances has basically remained unchanged since Roe v. Wadewas decided in 1973).

It is also the case, according to MacIntyre, that those involved in these philosophical and political debates claim to be using premises that are objective, based on reason, and universally applicable. Many of them even believe these claims, misunderstanding the nature of their particular inadequate modern philosophy, just as the people in MacIntyre’s post-disaster world misunderstand what it means to be doing real science. But what they are really doing, whether they recognize it or not, is using the language of morality to try to gain their own preferences. They are not trying to persuade others by reasoned argument, because a reasoned argument about morality would require a shared agreement on the good for human beings in the same way that reasoned arguments in the sciences rely on shared agreement about what counts as a scientific definition and a scientific practice. This agreement about the good for human beings does not exist in the modern world (in fact, the modern world is in many ways defined by its absence) and so any attempt at reasoned argument about morality or moral issues is doomed to fail. Other parties to the argument are fully aware that they are simply trying to gain the outcome they prefer using whatever methods happen to be the most effective. (Below there will be more discussion of these people; they are the ones who tend to be most successful as the modern world measures success.) Because we cannot agree on the premises of morality or what morality should aim at, we cannot agree about what counts as a reasoned argument, and since reasoned argument is impossible, all that remains for any individual is to attempt to manipulate other people’s emotions and attitudes to get them to comply with one’s own wishes.

MacIntyre claims that protest and indignation are hallmarks of public “debate” in the modern world. Since no one can ever win an argument – because there’s no agreement about how someone could “win” – anyone can resort to protesting; since no one can ever lose an argument – how can they, if no one can win? – anyone can become indignant if they don’t get their way. If no one can persuade anyone else to do what they want, then only coercion, whether open or hidden (for example, in the form of deception) remains. This is why, MacIntyre says, political arguments are not just interminable but extremely loud and angry, and why modern politics is simply a form of civil war.

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22 Comments To "The second coming of Distributism"

#1 Comment By Dean On October 20, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

There can be no truce to the culture wars. History is a chopping block, as Hegel said. Our divisions will have to work themselves out the ugly way, since there is no other way.

And how can we find a common culture in our country if we cannot find a common culture in our churches?

We are in search of something that doesn’t exist.

#2 Comment By VR On October 20, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

The problem I have with your line of argument here Rod is twofold (although my two objections are related): firstly, you are presuming (or at least it seems that you are) that there is, in fact, an objective moral reality in the same way that there is an objective physical reality—otherwise, MacIntyre’s analogy falls flat as he is comparing apples and oranges.

Secondly, your/MacIntyre’s view fails to acknowledge that many more modern philosophers (I am thinking of Rawls in particular) do not pretend that there is an objective reality that they are trying to discuss—Rawls, in particular, truly starts from zero if I remember him correctly. MacIntyre’s ciriticism of Rawls, that he is arguing from an unproven and unprovable premise, is false as I understand Rawls.

The second objection is really derivaative of the first, though, as it flows from a (false) assumption that the view that there is no transcendent, objectively determinable Platonic ideal of morality must be wrong.

(And please don’t just throw around “nihilist” as a conversation stopper–the lack of an external moral standard is not the same as a denial of all morality. It just means we should stop pretending that we are not writing the rules, and should concentrate on writing good ones.)

#3 Comment By J.Random On October 20, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

This leapt out at me:

“To use an analogy that MacIntyre does not use, one might say that it is as if we tore handfuls of pages from books by Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Danielle Steele, Mark Twain, and J.K. Rowling, threw half of them away, shuffled the rest, stapled them together, and then tried to read the “story” that resulted.”

…that sounds a lot like the Bible!

Has this not *always* been the moral world in which humanity has lived? Do we imagine the past was less morally contentious than the present?

#4 Comment By Lancelot Lamar On October 20, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

Uh, VR in your understanding, and in the absence of objective moral truth, how would we “concentrate on writing good” rules? How would you determine what is “good,” who would determine it and on what basis? You simply cannot use a word like “good” if there is no appeal to an objective standard of good. And that is McIntyre’s whole point.

#5 Comment By t e whalen On October 20, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

I wish Rod would go a step or two further with his thinking here. Rod, are you in favor of a truce in the culture wars? What do you think that would look like, and what compromises are you willing to make (perhaps temporarily) to get it?

#6 Comment By JonF On October 20, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

Dean,
Some culture war issues admit of compromise (e.g., gay marriage) while others (e.g., abortion) do not. This is true of all sorts of issues. tax and spending issue are a fertile field for half-loaves. War generally is not.

#7 Comment By VR On October 20, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

Lancelot Lamar—

I disagree that the word “good” has no meaning outside of an objective, external standard. As I said, we should stop pretending that we are not writing the rules, and argue about what rules we should write.

In other words, it is for us (all, as humans) to determine what is good. That has always been the case, in my view, and arguments about objective morality (as if it had an undeniable physical existence like the chair I’m sitting on) are, in the end, attempts to appeal to atuhority in lieu of convincing argument.

#8 Comment By Emp On October 20, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

The way to end the culture wars is by allowing a divorce and letting the country break up. Then the members of the resulting new nations will have more of a shared foundation from which to govern.

#9 Comment By Clare Krishan On October 20, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

Poor old Philip – without a monarch as token idol, logical positivism has no anchor to pitch in the quicksand of relativism. The hun Imperialists lost the plot even sooner than we Anglosaxons – Bismarck led directly to the Dritte Reich and a very nasty culture war, even if their trains ran on time and their autobahns are stlll standing (with a few extra layers of asphalt in the meantime, of course). A rail tycoon funded the foundation of a religious order that unfortunately had no bailout benefactor and has not been able to hold its own since the terms of her father’s will directed that the principle held in trust for his daughter be passed back to the family upon her death. She knew this of course, that’s why she did such a good job of converting her capital dividends into social capital – building schools and hospitals all over the South, our host’s home state Lousiania’s Xavier University for example.

A contemporary of Chester – Belloc published in the 1920s was compelled to document this understanding of what capital really is – its not a nominal empiricist data point that can be managed at zero risk, its a relationship of value determined by an exchange subject to the risks of human personalisms (such as a father’s wise choice to protect his daughter from gold-digger suitors, how was he to know she would go on to be canonised as St Katherine Drexel?).

#10 Comment By Clare Krishan On October 20, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

[7]

#11 Comment By VikingLS On October 20, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

The culture war is such an impediment to any real resolution of moral controversies that it seems almost premeditated in its futility.

#12 Comment By Carlo On October 20, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

VR:

and what would your “convincing argument” appeal to if there is no reality to appeal to, but rather we CREATE moral realities? Ultimate it will determined by the balance of power in society.

In fact, I think you completely misunderstand and what “authority” means: authority is precisely what liberates by a subjugation to the balance of powers by linking us to the “real” reality (in the sense of Plato). In the end
the choice is between Plato and Nietzsche.

#13 Comment By Matt On October 20, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

The culture war is over. the left won.

Blond should stick to England. Those checks and balances are one of the only reasons we aren’t completely bankrupt yet. Political paralysis is good because both parties are parasitic.

#14 Comment By Tyro On October 20, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

There can be no truce to the culture wars.

I agree, and there is no economic conservatism without cultural conservatism, and vice versa. With economic conservatism, you can make people more economically insecure and subject them to mass amounts of risk. With a decaying or poor public infrastructure, you can insure that individuals shoulder most of the costs of engaging in daily economic life. This forces them into making culturally conservative choices, so that they can avoid risk as much as possible. The economic environment will create the sort of desperation that ensures that they conform to the standards of the economic leaders or other elites to ensure their livelihood without the temptation to deviate into radicalism or any sort of disruption of the existing hierarchy.

David Frum argued in favor of this in “Dead Right.” It’s pretty straightforward. If you want people to pay sufficient deference to your moral/cultural standards, you need to create the sort of economic environment that allows them to be punished severely for deviating, rather than allowing them the sort of personal freedom and economic room to do as they please.

#15 Comment By Marchmaine On October 20, 2011 @ 6:25 pm

VR… unless you are writing ironically, surely you realize that you are the proof of MacIntyre’s thesis, no?

Blond says, “Americans have to sit down and figure out who they want to be as a nation”

Which is simultaneously exactly right *and* the stupidest thing he’s ever written.

#16 Comment By steveB On October 20, 2011 @ 8:09 pm

Not sure what I think of this and I wondered what the more grassroots of the GOP would think of this so I wrote about it at a site I am a FPP on, Race42012.com. Unfortunately I think as soon as you write the verb “distribute” they stop listening.

In case you’re interested:
[8]

#17 Comment By Naturalmom On October 21, 2011 @ 12:49 am

I’m confused about when in the past there was agreement about “the good for human beings.” MacIntyre seems to think it was before the Enlightenment, so the Middle Ages, maybe? Ancient Rome? Ancient Greece? I don’t know about you, but I would not have wanted to be anything other than a wealthy, elite male in any of those times! Certainly if there was broad agreement about the good for human beings in those eras, it was either roundly ignored by most in power or their definition of “good” didn’t include much in the way of safety and security, never mind freedom. History is rife with violent conflict over property, liberty, food, taxes and religion, even among neighbors and within communities who presumably (according to MacIntire) shared this common concept of moral goodness in pre-Enlightenment days.

I don’t feel historically competent enough to argue with MacIntire about whether consensus about morality and philosophy existed before the Enlightenment or not. It may have. But whatever the ills of modern culture — and I agree there are many — most of us enjoy a much less violent, more free and safer world than those who lived before the Enlightenment. This doesn’t necessarily make MacIntyre *wrong* in arguing that we’d be better off with a common understanding of what is “good for human beings.” I just don’t think he can look to history to back him up much.

#18 Comment By Carlo On October 21, 2011 @ 11:47 am

Naturalmom:

“most of us enjoy a much less violent, more free and safer world than those who lived before the Enlightenment.”

Why do you attribute all of that to “the Enlightenment?” That’s a mythical construction. The modern world (including modern science and technology)
resulted from many factors, while “the Enlightenment” was a particular ideology that flourished in the XVIII century and gave a particular interpretation of the history of modernity,

For instance “the Enlightenment” set up a bogus opposition between the birth of science and medieval culture, which we now know to be completely absurd. In fact, modern science was born out of the culture of late European Middle ages, not “the Enlightenment.”

#19 Comment By Naturalmom On October 21, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

Carlo, no I would not attribute our current circumstances entirely to the Enlightenment. My only point was the pre-Enlightenment period that MacIntyre seems to argue was somehow better off for it’s moral absolutism and I don’t see that backed up historically.

#20 Comment By Carlo On October 21, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

Naturalmom:

the age of the Enlightenment was very much morally absolutist. Ever heard of Kant’s “cathegorical imperative?” Our age is also one of the most moralistic in history, just the moralism is applied to some things and not others. You have not read MacIntyre if you think he advocates moral absolutism.

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