A while back First Things editor Joe Carter took a potshot at Distributists, describing them as “utopianists who have read so much fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien […] that it has infected their views about the polis.” Mr. Carter went on to approvingly cite John Couretas of the Acton Institute, who describes Distributism as a mere “aesthetic, a sensibility, a nostalgia for a bygone era that conveniently ignores pervasive wretchedness.” Distributism, we are told, contains a “hidden coercive impulse” which would “prohibit ordinary folk from behaving and consuming […] in ‘frivolous’ ways.”
Carter’s attack makes clear why I find it increasingly difficult to sympathize with conservative defenders of liberalism, who praise mass culture yet fret over socialism, who worry about relativism for a living yet dismiss concerns about uglification as reflecting the mere opinions of elitist aesthetes. A conservative liberal is somebody who encourages the prevailing progressive view that the past was benighted and is best forgotten, but then demands respect for the Ten Commandments and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — and to boot casually drops ten-dollar words like “polis” with unintended irony.
And just what is meant by “ordinary folk?” Does it include the large majority who evidently thought Barack Obama would be a swell president? Does it include those whose children master the remote before learning to speak? Those who treat birth-control pills as if they were M&M’s, stand assembled outside Toys’R'Us like ravenous zombies in the wee hours of Black Friday, and think dolls dressed like cheap hookers make nice Christmas gifts for little girls? (Of course whenever there’s even the faintest threat that “ordinary folk” might recover a sense of who they are and where they come from, sage passengers on the conservative establishment gravy-train are quick to jettison all traces of populism and denounce the latent nativism, protectionism, and isolationism of ignorant small-town rabble.)
Just in case it’s not clear, I am not so interested in defending Distributism – an interesting and provocative theory of which I know little – as I am in addressing Mr. Carter’s premises. The question is not whether Distributism lives up to the creed of Western liberalism but whether that creed should be our measure.
For instance – who cares if Distributism contains “a hidden coercive impulse” or not? While I can’t speak for the Distributists I myself endorse coercion quite openly, much as I endorse gravity. Yes, tyranny is a nasty business, but then so is falling down a flight of stairs. Like those imperious bumper stickers commanding us to question authority, democratic capitalists’ condemnations of coercion are both hypocritical and disingenuous. Oh, of course, rest assured that when left to their own devices, rich big-shots would never ever dream of coercing anybody – just ask the Appalachian coal miner. And of course the corporate system owes nothing whatsoever to heavy-handed government meddling — like, for instance, the creation of corporations as legal entities with rights and privileges. Concerned that society is saturated by a manipulative, hi-tech commercialism which grows ever more sophisticated at bypassing parents, circumventing restraint, and eroding discipline? Why, you are perfectly free to keep your children locked in the basement. Or move to the Antarctic. (Denham’s Dentifrice does it; they toil not, nor do they spin.)
As for utopia and immanentizing the eschaton, evidently leftist Democrats are not the only ones tempted to mistake for knowledge the memorization of sophisticated mantras. Yes, Christian thought recognizes that Heaven-on-Earth is infeasible; Christian thought also recognizes that life has a sacramental dimension. Thus there is a fine line between avoiding fanaticism on one hand and being a principle-deficient Laodicean on the other. Is it utopian to desire that one’s homeland be recognizable as such? Setting aside the matter of Leo XIII’s views on usury and just wages, was it really an infatuation with hobbits that caused Thomas Jefferson to declare that “the small landholders are the most precious part of a state”?
Moreover, it’s preposterous for anybody living in modern America to get on a high horse about utopianism unless he first acknowledges a few things about the collectively-narcissistic mindset currently prevailing here in our Shining City On A Hill in The New World at The End of History. Even now, unapologetic chickenhawks prattle about their open-ended war on an abstract noun, and proclaim as their Borg-esque gospel the liberalization of the entire planet. If you’re not with us you’re against us, quoth one Manichean-In-Chief. Who is nuttier, the dreamer who works toward an ideal, or the American exceptionalist who cheerily burbles that we’re already pretty much living in it? Come to think of it, was the Oxford philologist who endured the trenches of the First World War really that much more out of touch with reality than the detestable half-wits now vying for the GOP nomination?
Claude Polin gets to the heart of the problem with Carter’s beloved status quo:
Modernity’s basic assumption is that man’s freedom supersedes his nature, that his nature is to make his own nature. This amounts practically to giving free rein to individual whims, passions, imagination, impulses, or vagaries, and radically precludes the idea that there may be natural bounds to his freedom — and therefore any idea that there might be any such thing as a natural society, other than that unnatural entity called the general society of mankind.
All the main dogmas of our time appear geared to the subjective satisfaction of individuals, taken as essentially rootless and cosmopolitan beings: modern science, whose goal is not the contemplation but the domination of nature for the benefit of the unnatural, as well as natural, needs of any possible man; political economy, whether liberal or socialist, which caters to a nondescript individual’s unlimited consumption (and to the maximum enrichment of the strongest individuals or classes of individuals); democracy, whose ideal remains the improbable sovereignty of an absolutely free and therefore unspecified individual; religion, which becomes more and more sectarian, appealing to any individual’s tastes and supposedly spiritual fancies; culture, whose more and more appalling relativism or mere nihilism exonerates the individual from all possible norms, and particularly any natural one; the prevailing importance of commercial activities, whose basic law is to sell anything one may wish to anyone.
The modern mentality seems to have sided with the unavailing glorification of a conception of man’s nature that used to be considered the corruption of his true nature, which is to belong.
This brings us to the most illuminating part of Mr. Carter’s anti-utopian commentary. As if seeking to highlight his similarity to C.S. Lewis’ Gaius and Titius — who try debunking certain traditional sentiments without realizing the implications for their own values — Carter throws in a swipe at transhumanism. The transhumanists, says Carter, are “confusing, weird, and would be scary if their ideas weren’t so silly.”
Anyone concerned with the future should be disturbed that an editor for such a prominent publication cannot make an intelligent response to the existential issues transhumanism raises — nor acknowledge that transhumanist notions are in fact pervasive in institutions which inform Americans’ moral imaginations, from Marvel Comics to the National Science Foundation. Those who look to spirit and consciousness rather than to the material will perceive that the transhumanist dream of seceding from humanity has largely come true already; given continual advances in robotics and bioengineering one would have to be mighty dim to simply laugh off the possibility of man merging with — or becoming enslaved to — his technology. Yet again we have the spectacle of the complacent conservative liberal, who perennially rolls his eyes at the “silly” fantasies of an H.G. Wells or a Robert Goddard or a William Gibson, yet finds inconceivable and intolerable a world without luxuries and comforts which were themselves only sci-fi fantasies a generation before.
Of course we can and must continue to leave man’s metamorphosis up to the free market. For certainly we wouldn’t want anybody to accuse us of having a hidden coercive impulse; it’s not like corporations would ever push anything perverse and unnatural. If you don’t want a designer baby, or photosynthetic skin, or an AI iPad jammed up your caboose, fine — nobody will force you. Just don’t try to tell your neighbors that they can’t have it. Who is the bioconservative to judge an appetite for an extra stomach “frivolous”? Indeed, were I a transhumanist I’d argue that the attachment to old-fashioned homo sapiens is merely … an aesthetic, a sensibility, a nostalgia for a bygone era that conveniently ignores pervasive wretchedness.
But there’s no need to worry about the world of tomorrow, for it will be in good hands, thanks to the Invisible Hand. With each passing day “ordinary folk” are liberated even further from what little remains of obsolete organic folk wisdom; their psyches are now shaped and enlightened by mass-culture, by marketing jingles, limitless mobility, Hollywood blockbusters, video games, credit card living, Yahoo! News, teen vampire erotica, instant messaging and instant gratification. Hence we may all rest easy knowing that the Faustian consumer will make prudent choices with the powers offered him.