I've been having a friendly discussion with a friend on the subject of radicalism. Well, that's my way of describing it. It's taken in a lot of other stuff-- language, Belloc, usury, Catholic cultures and non-Catholic cultures, and much, much more (as they would say on the Telstar ads). But I think one of the real sticking points (for me) is this question of radicalism.
My friend (who I admire and respect greatly) is very critical of our current economic system, and hopes for its transformation into something more humane. He's especially critical of the role of usury in our financial system, which (drawing on Hilaire Belloc) he defines not simply as interest but as exorbitant interest, especially when no wealth is being created. (I think that's correct.)
Now, I am no economist so I am unable to say whether any system other than the one we have is even possible. It seems to me that our interconnected, highly technological world is so complicated that the heights of finance must take on a certain apparent unreality.
In any case, my friend says that he's well aware how unlikely it is that Belloc's views will prevail in the short term, that indeed it might be hundreds of thousands of years before they prevail. However, he still feels that the case is worth making, even if they will only bear fruit many centuries from now.
I must admit I find this kind of thing frustrating. Centuries from now...anything could happen. Our descendants may inhabit a post-scarcity economy, or they might be huddling amidst the blackened ruins of a post-apocalyptic world. Something as essentially ephemeral as political and economic structures just don't seem worthy of such long-term aspirations.
But it's more than that. It's the all-or-nothing nature of the aspiration. It just seems such a terrible waste, to think of people pouring so much energy and ingenuity into something that may never happen.
One of my favourite poems of all time is "The Fool" by Patrick Pearse, and it would seem to endorse (perhaps it does endorse) this very attitude, in the most moving terms:
And the wise have pitied the fool that hath striven to give a life
In the world of time and space among the bulks of actual things,
To a dream that was dreamed in the heart, and that only the heart could hold.
O wise men, riddle me this: what if the dream come true?
What if the dream come true? and if millions unborn shall dwell
In the house that I shaped in my heart, the noble house of my thought?
Even though Pearse's "The Fool" romanticizes this attitude, I think there's a huge difference between the vision Pearse had and the vision of other radicals who seek to change political and economic structures.
I suppose, in its strongest terms, Pearse's dream was the Ireland described in the Proclamation of 1916. Nearly everybody will agree that this vision has not been achieved. Is it even achievable? One can forgive Kevin O'Higgins, the hard-headed government minister how as assassinated by hardline nationalists, for describing the programme of the first Dáil (Irish parliament) as "mostly poetry."
More concretely, one might argue that the dream of Pearse was an Ireland "not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well", as he put it himself. Few people would argue that this has been achieved.
Of course, Pearse was spectacularly successful in leading a rebellion which, only a few years later, resulted in the withdrawal of British forces from all but a corner of the island of Ireland-- something which had been sought but not achieved for centuries before. Indeed, this is something which might have been considered impossible, given the power of the British Empire at the time. So we can certainly grant Pearse the vindication of his gamble in this regard-- whether he would have regarded it as a success is impossible to know.
But my argument would be that, even if Ireland had still not achieved any measure of political independence, Pearse's legacy would still have been a very worthy one, in tangible terms. The two Irish language schools he opened (one for boys and one for girls) had a profound and lasting influence on Irish society. His own passionate loyalty to the Irish language and the vision of Irish nationality would continue to inspire patriots, whether or not there was an Irish state of any kind. And the literature he wrote and the educational writings he left would have their own value.
As a matter of fact, I will not hide my opinion that Pearse's increasing focus on politics, in the last years of his life, was a mistake. I think this was a mistake mirrroed by the whole Irish nationalist movement of his lifetime, and indeed until now. In my opinion, the Irish nationalist movement should have focused much more upon cultural and social goals rather than political goals. Reviving the Irish language would have been a much greater achievement than having our own parliament, as important as that is.
Having mentioned the Irish language, let me use it to reflect on the distinction (in my view) between serious, responsible idealism and idealism that isn't responsible or serious. The aspiration to revive the Irish language as a language of common use in Ireland is a radical aspiration. It may never be achieved; it seems highly unlikely it will ever be achieved. However, any progress towards that goal is an achievement in tiself. A short conversation in Irish increases the amount of Irish spoken in the country. Even if Irish is never revived, this short conversation has a value of its own-- a value as immediate as a man kissing his wife, a boy reading a poem, a child building a sandcastle, or a game of darts in a pub.
I think that movements which seek to improve the fabric of society, stitch by stitch, are much more admirable, and realistic, than movements which seek to change the whole framework of society.
The great question is: what can you do now? If you don't hit the jackpot, have your efforts been completely wasted?
And as a matter of fact, I would argue that the Distributist League of Chesterton Belloc and others did achieve a considerable amount. They may never have brought about a Distributist society, but they encouraged various small-scale efforts, such as small farms and credit unions. Indeed, I've just found this "Fifteen Things a Distributist May Do" article written by Fr. Vincent McNabb, which details practical and immediate ways someone may live out Distributism, such as this:
Buy some hand-woven cloth. Wear it. Buy some more.
Wear that too.
Your home-spun will instruct you better than the Declaration of
Independence will instruct you on the dignity and rights of man.
So I have a great deal of admiration for this kind of idealism, one which seeks to embody its own ideals, to not only improve the world from the top down (first you have to get to the top) but from the grassroots. Also, the Distributists' critique of big businesss and big government had its own validity. For instance, the ideal of a family (with more than one or two children) being able to afford a house and a reasonable standard of living from the salary of one parent is a timeless standard, one that is relevant everywhere and always, no matter how far we have travelled from it. Reiterating it can only be a good thing. Chesterton makes this case very well in What's Wrong with the World.
At this point, friend, I can hear you thinking: "Well, what are you disagreeing with me about? We agree on all this!". And yet, somehow I do still feel a sense of disagreement. Not only with you, but also with Chesterton and Belloc and-- every social radical.
The times are out of joint. The times have always been out of joint. There are truly evil societies, such as Nazi Germany or Afghanistan under the Taliban. I think Chesterton and Belloc went way over the top criticizing the society of their time, just as I think Patrick Pearse went way over the top criticizing the educational system of the time.
Yes, a family with children should be able to afford a house of their own, on one breadwinner's salary. But a society where both spouses have to work full-time to rent an apartment...is not Nazi Germany.
Yes, there is far too much advertising in our society, and it's of a lurid and offensive nature. But a consumerist, commercialised society...is not Stalin's Russia.
All too often Chesterton (I can't speak for Belloc) writes as though the political and economic system of his time is only worth smashing up and replacing, that nothing replacing it could be worse. I think this was irresponsible and naive of Chesterton.
And I encounter the same in so many writers of the left and right. Nearly every "tenured radical", every writer of film studies and equality studies and women's studies, takes it as an axiom that our patriarchal, racist, capitalist, heternormativist society is so radically diseased that a "sane society" would be utterly unrecognizable from it...they, too, are looking towards their own millennium, a different millennium from Chesterton and Belloc. It seems that their are any amount of various radical groups, from anarcho-capitalists to militant feminists, who regard our current social system as completely corrupt-- for wildly differing reasons-- and wish to replace it with a radical alternative. They add to the colour of life, but they don't seem intellectually serious-- that kind of protest politics makes no real demands, because they know they are never going to have to put their ideas to the test of reality.
I'm not saying "top-down", legislative changes which are "all or nothing" are not worth pursuing. We are obliged to demand the legal prohibition of abortion, for instance. But that's a very narrow issue. And the principles I've enuniciated here explain why I find the approach of the "consistent life ethic" or the "seamless garment" so objectionable.
I have more to say on this topic, but I'd better leave it there for now.