15 February, 2018

The Praise of Impracticality


One of the main – and the oldest – charges raised against distributism is that it is “impractical”; at least as far as I know the case. In my personal experience I have encountered this obstacle hundreds and hundreds of times. In most cases, when I try to convince somebody to become a distributist (or at least start taking serious interest in the problem), it all works great, and everybody agrees with me, and just when I start to gain the upper hand and get “this close” to finishing the case, my interlocutor hides behind the great wall of “impracticality.” “How to do it? Did this Chesterton of yours ever say exactly how to deconcentrate property? Did he propose a bill to the parliament, did he form a political party (etc…). No? Oh, I see; because it cannot be done. It’s nice and all, but it cannot be done.” And usually just after that, the grand hit: “Socialism in theory is nice too, but it just doesn’t work.”

And no; we are not going to talk about the “niceties” of socialism.

Now, obviously there is much more to it than just my personal experience, and even while reading a Polish edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia under the entry “Chesterton” I encountered an opinion that he “dreamt the utopian visions of pre-industrial ‘Merry England’” (or something to that point). Now, regardless of the authority of the speaker, such accusations have always struck me chiefly because of one thing: they say more about the accuser than the accused; substantially, they mean so much that if the people don’t have something done for them, they cannot believe it could be done; that instead of working things out for themselves, especially politically, they wait for “some great Minister” (in the very characteristic words of John Brown, for nothing changes, 18th century or 21st century) to come and deal with everything (preferably by magic). Now, of course I’m being a little mean, but there is quite a grain (or perhaps much more than just a grain) of truth in what I’m saying. And just as distributism is very much about doing things for yourself economically (like running your own farm, or baking your own bread – from top to bottom), it can be said that it is also about doing things for yourself politically. And it is a fact worth remembering.

For my original hypothesis as to why Chesterton was rather reluctant in proposing conclusions and never formulated a clear political program (which cannot be denied) lies in this; that he simply didn’t know how to do it. Now, from one point of view it might seem like an unconditional surrender for a social thinker to admit something like that – but not necessarily. There are ideas and there are actions; and however close might our ideas be to our actions, however practical, detailed and complex we make them, however much we’ll strive to take care of everything and cover every possibility, and make everything perfect in advance – we won’t do this. The gap between thinking and doing is, in a way, unbridgeable; and it was not an accident that the Scholastic saw it fit to warn us that it is not the practical reason, but the virtue of prudence that plays an instrumental role in the concrete of moral activity. In the end, you decide and make choices on the basis of what you’re dealing with at the moment. It all depends on circumstances – and since you cannot know them in advance, there is not much point in speculating.

In other words, Chesterton didn’t give his readers a political program because he was not a politician; it is really quite reasonable. How was he to know what would have worked when the Distributist Reform had been (hypothetically) launched? What would the parliamentary balance of power have looked like? Who would have been the prime minister? Who would have led the opposition? What would have been the possibilities for compromise? And would there even have been a parliament, a prime minister, the opposition, or compromise? And what if there had been the Bolshevist Revolution, the state had taken over everything, and Great Britain had become a machine-like dictatorship, hunting its opponents down as if they were mad wolves (which was actually a very real perspective at the time, at least just after the First World War)? Now, these are the questions he might have asked himself – and anybody who even thinks of getting serious about politics should ask himself something exactly of this sort. Chesterton knew this, and he therefore knew what he wanted to accomplish – and when he should have stopped, especially in the uncertain and chaotic times he happened to live.

What I’m saying can very easily be exemplified. Surprising as it might seem, distributism at least once crystallized in an attempt at immediate political expression – and not in England. Adam Doboszyński (1904-1949), one of the leading (and most controversial) Polish nationalist thinkers in his book The National Economy (1934; in 1945 he re-wrote it in English as The Economy of Charity, excluding all of the most controversial fragments and thus making it much more universal) advocated a broad distributist-based program for major political change, encompassing all the fundamental elements of the proposition: deconcentration of property, proprietization of the dispossessed, checking the uncontrollable urbanization, restoration of the guilds, regulating the scope of market competition by law, strengthening the agriculture, protecting the weak (etc., etc.) Now, Doboszyński – a representative of the fascinating generation of Polish mid-war intelligentsia that had been largely wiped out duing the war and immediately after (Doboszyński himself was killed by the communists on a false accusation of spying for the USA and Germany) – traveled a lot, and got to know Chesterton personally (he was never his friend, of course, but he actually talked and listened to him). I was thus most surprised when I learned that this sincere Chestertonian accused his mentor – well: pretty much of exactly the same thing; in 1947, two years before his death, in one of his articles Doboszyński wrote about GKC that “he bordered on genius […] He lived in a small and skeptical era, and had never perhaps managed to surpass its limitations. He stood on the threshold, in all humility, as was fitting for a Catholic.” Now, the intention of this text, though not at all malicious, seems clear enough; Chesterton was great – but not as great as he could have been; he did much – but not as much as he could have done. Because of the “skepticism” he inherited after his times, he couldn’t find enough courage to say things straightforwardly, and give the English nation a definite project of action.

Now Doboszyński intended to invent a remedy for that (for his own nation of course, not for the English) – and indeed, he managed to do it; but what this remedy really was? How did Doboszyński propose to conduct such a major change? Obviously, the economic project is not enough; someone has to be there to make the project happen, in other words – in order to make the economic reform real, you need to pass a bill, and to pass a bill, you need the State. What was, then, the State of Adam Doboszyński?
“In the light of the experiences of the past 25 years it is difficult not to notice that the majority of Poles instinctively desires the Head of the Nation to be a man high above the general populace, shrouded in glory and legend […]. Elected for life? As it has already been said, such solution fits our traditions and geopolitical circumstances alike; it also answers the demand for strengthening the authority of the head of the state […]. The head of the state could nominate and dismiss the minister as he saw fit; nominate (for life) the head of the Supreme Court, the head of the High Command (in the times of war: the Commander-in-Chief), the chief of the National Institute for Economic Planning, the head of the radio broadcasting, and a part of the Senate…” 
And so on, and so on (the quote is taken from his work Regimen commixtum, published in 1947). We really don’t have to go into to much detail here, especially that the conclusion seems relatively natural; what Doboszyński aimed at – was a form of dictatorship pure and simple. He did what he could to deny this accusation, and he frequently tells his reader that the prerogatives of the head of the state should be strong but not too strong, that a strong government doesn’t have to be dictatorial, and the like, but if we pass from words to things, the matter is quite evident. Now, it is not really the question of whether dictatorship as such is right or wrong; many people (among them Hilaire Belloc) have always considered it to be a normal form of rule, especially for abnormal times. Whatever we think of it in the abstract, however, nowadays it is completely out of question; you cannot have a dictatorial rule, especially if you’re a part of the economic “West” (the “Liberal International” as some say) – and no society in Europe would ever want it; and indeed, no society in Europe wants it, and none is trying to build it. Whether we like it or not, and even if we think them intellectually interesting, we cannot read Doboszyński’s remarks otherwise than as historic curiosa. His solutions are practically void – and what is even worse (perhaps), they are also thought to be extremely controversial (at least by those who cannot remember that in 1947 the world was a different place) and for many might compromise the distributist cause; for the same reasons they think an ideal without concrete political articulation is an empty idea, if they see it associated (in the mind of one author and without a trace of logical necessity) with dictatorial government, they think it is dictatorial, and dismiss it at once.

With Chesterton, however, it’s different; we can read him – or at least a major bulk of his texts –  as if he was our contemporary; we can relate, ask questions, look for solutions. Why is that? Well – precisely because he decided to be “impractical”; because he refrained from forming a political plan, from finding immediate solutions and going to far into the wilderness of political practice. He knew it is never good to say too much at once, and to try to deal with everything at one blow; he knew that changing things takes time – and needs great caution and order, especially – intellectual order. Impracticality of distributism is the practicality of distributism; or, in other words, because distributism is not immediately practical it is eternally practical (pardon the pathos) – practical with the practicality of a definite historical and social ideal, valid for any day and age. Of course, there really is a need to formulate a working political project, and at least suggest some ways in which distributism could be established (and this is the grain of truth that can be found in the popular accusations), but it is only the second step on the road; firstly, we must understand what distributism is in itself; what sort of thinking it implies; what attitude; what shape of imagination.

Anyway, the “practical” (let us say: immediately practical, though it’s a rather stiff term) solutions are not so common in politics as one might presume. It is easy to find a golden key that unlocks every door, a magical formula applicable to anything in any moment, to say “lower the taxes” any time there is an economic problem, or “more welfare” any time you find yourself in the middle of some social turmoil. But such solutions are not solutions; they are slogans. To have a solution, you need a precise knowledge of the law; you need to know how to write the law; you need to how to make moves, and how to make them pass; you need to know who to talk to, and how to negotiate. It is not an easy matter, and Chesterton knew this well enough (he was a brilliant political journalist); and he sure taught me much about it. This is yet another reason for the permanent greatness of his political texts. They do not offer immediate solutions, but they do offer the instruments necessary to find such solutions – but, as I’ve just said – this is a different thing altogether. What we must do first, is to understand the ideal itself, assimilate it, ruminate it, and work it out for ourselves. Only when we do that it will be possible to move on, and to think of action as action.

And I’m quite sure there are plenty of people who will do true marvels when the time comes.

And if somebody still thinks that Chesterton is too impractical, and distributism is just a beautiful utopia, let him know this: it is you who can make this utopia happen; Chesterton understood that, and wrote specially for you (and no, I’m not kidding, at least not totally). At least give it a try; read, think, wonder, figure it out. If nothing happens, you will move on – but beware; there were many who read Chesterton and Belloc just to “try them.” And very few of them has remained quite the same.

Present company included.


Title photograph by Arvid Gutschow. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

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