Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Weekly Review - A Criticism of Critics

by Fr. W.P. Witcutt




The end I had in mind when writing "Dying Lands” was the attainment of the Distributist Society; a society, that is, in which, first, the ordinary man shall, as the normal thing, own individually the means of production—land or the tools of his trade; secondly, in which machinery shall be subject to man and not man to machinery, thirdly, in which the State will be based on agriculture and not on commerce plus usury, both for the security of the State and for the mental and physical health of the citizens.

This was the purpose, the problem was by what means was it possible to achieve this purpose. The economists had stated that it was impossible simply to transfer men from industry to agriculture in order to grow more food for the people still engaged in industry. That would wreck the English economic system, wherein food was imported to pay for the manufactured goods sold abroad and also to pay the interest on capital invested abroad. More food grown at home would deprive our foreign buyers and creditors of their means of payment. That was the meaning of the statement, repeated so often about two years ago, that the land movement offered no solution for unemployment.

That seemed to be an impasse, a brick wall beyond which it was impossible to go further. It seemed to place an immovable obstacle to our efforts to build up a Distributist Society in England. It was in seeking a way round this obstacle that I remembered a statement of Penty’s, that the unemployed should constitute the core round which the new society would be built.

The English economic system had no further use for the unemployed. It was recognized that a “hardcore” of perhaps a million or so of them would always remain. In fact the economic structure would be far better off if they were somehow painlessly removed. True they were consumers, if they were removed less food from abroad and less manufactured goods produced at home would be needed, but this would be more than offset by the enormous amount of taxation which was needed to keep them in their non-producing state. Moreover, the unemployed were grouped largely in districts—derelict areas—South Wales, Durham, Cumberland. The solution almost stated itself. Cut those areas off from the general English economic polity and reconstruct them as Distributist societies. Then when this has been done or is well on its way to completion, gradually transfer other areas from the old society to the new, till the whole is no longer industrial capitalist but Distributist.

The critics of “Dying Lands,” and their criticisms can be grouped under two heads. First, criticism of the end, secondly of the means.

There were those who criticised the objective, the Distributist Society. Of these, the reviewer of the Birmingham Evening Despatch can be taken as the partisan of industrialism pure and simple. His objection, stated simply, was the well—known formula, “You can’t put the clock back.” Stated more philosophically, it took the form of Strachey’s Psychological Objection to Distributism, which he quoted:

“Now that you have invented more efficient methods, you cannot deliberately and consciously scrap them and go back to less productive methods, because in doing so you would destroy the psychological satisfaction, and your whole productive life would degenerate into mere play-acting.”

Mr. Strachey’s psychological objection presupposes one particular type of “psychology,” that of the “masters of the machine,” as J. B. Priestley calls them, the boss-class of capitalist or soviet industrialism, who have no actual contact with the machine itself, but who exercise command over those who have—the captains of industry, the commissars, the technicians, and their literary hangers-on—the minority who do well out of the present system. Naturally large—sca1e industry affords them great satisfaction. It appeals to their sense of power. They can go and admire the giant machines which they control, and, if they are technicians, give vent to their creative instincts by making this alteration or drawing that new plan of something yet more efficient; then they can go away again, leaving the unfortunates who actually work the machines to their monotonous task.

It is this class whose psychological satisfaction would be destroyed by the loss or curtailment of large-scale industry. Whether the normal man would lose his psychological satisfaction is another question. Man is always searching after happiness; the bosses increase their happiness by the sense of power over men and machines; the happiness of the majority would be increased by work less soul-destroying and less inhuman, such as they would obtain by the handicrafts and by small-scale machinery used for its proper purpose—the lightening of avoidable toil.

But, argues the supporter of industrialism, the other class, the servants of the machine, also have their psychological satisfaction, even out of large-scale industry—cheapness and leisure. The masses work, nowadays, for leisure’s sake and the cheap enjoyments they can have when they are no longer working—“cheaper and cheaper cars and cheaper and cheaper television sets," as the Despatch reviewer puts it. An astute and clever fellow, he certainly puts his finger on the “psychological” way in which the masses are held down. Their work may be horrible, but they are drugged with cheap and facile amusements. However, first of all we may doubt whether the cheap and gaudy compensations of industrialism carry much weight in the grim depressed areas; and secondly, these drugs and this habit of working merely for leisure’s sake—the most dangerous drug of all—are exactly what we are out to smash and must smash if civilization is to be carried on at all. In a way, the Distributist Society will be ascetic.

But one can’t take the children’s toys away altogether. “J.R.K.” in the Christian Democrat asks: “What sort of distributive society will it be in which we retain the railway, the motor-car, the steam ship, the coal mine, electricity (and no doubt gas), electrical machinery, typewriters, and radio sets?” Oh, we’ll keep some of the toys, we’ll grant you. And why are mines and railways incompatible with Distributist Society? Some large-scale organizations will be necessary.

“J.R.K.’s” point (in his Christian Democrat review of “Dying Lands") is that it is impossible to make any distinction between large and small scale machinery. We must either accept or reject the machine in toto. A society which made use of small electrical machines would not, he says, be a Distributist society at all, since “electrical machinery must be produced in large factories and distribution of electricity demands very large agglomerations of capital.” Accepting the principle of machinery and denying the possibility of drawing any distinction between the large and small scale use of it, this writer therefore accepts large-scale mechanized industry and rejects the Distributist position.

Here, in parenthesis, I must explain why I consider the advocacy of the small machine as compatible with Distributism. First, because it can be owned by one man and need not have many men to be its servants; secondly, because it may be turned on and off at will and no one is its slave. Moreover it would it be impossible to introduce a pure handicraft economy all at once into a society used to the cheap (though often rubbishy) products of large-scale industry.

But the small machine has to be made by large-scale mechanized industry. We must admit that. It is not possible, at present, to decentralize the heavy industries. But we are not such rigid doctrinairies that we should not allow large factories as an exception. We do not envisage the comp1ete extirpation of large-scale mechanized industries, any more than we envisage the complete disappearance of large fortunes. The attainment of the Distributist society is a matter of proportion. When the complete citizen who owns individually the means of production sets the tone of society, is the normal citizen, we shall be satisfied.

This reply deals adequately, I think, with another objection to the Distributist State put forward by the Despatch reviewer, that “no nation can be an efficient war machine unless it has a mass production economy.” The “mass production economy” necessary for the production of armaments can be an exceptional enclave within the Distributist State. It is not necessary to be a completely industrialized state to wage modern war.

To turn now to criticisms of the Means. Mr. R. P. Walsh, writing in Blackfriars, admits much of the Distributive objective as desirable, while disowning the name of Distributist. His objection is to the means proposed.

“Surely,” he writes, “it is as easy to persuade the Parliament of Great Britain to agree to the cultivation of our unused land, the promotion of smaller industries, and the spreading of ownership, as to persuade Parliament to agree to a decentralization which will involve these points? By adding decentralization into self-contained economic units to various good and useful reforms the task is made all the more difficult.”

I think Mr. Walsh has not realized the economic difficulties which make a straight frontal attack upon the present economic system next to impossible. It would be preferable to deal with the country as a whole, as he suggests. (“Great Britain must be treated as a whole; we must refuse to segregate parts.”) To set the unemployed to cultivate our unused land, that is, to grow more food for the general market, is economically impossible, because it would deprive our creditors of the means to pay for our goods and to pay interest on loans. That is why a back to the land movement in England is always blocked—that and the necessity for providing cheap food from the tractor-countries from our industrial workers.

The only way to rehabilitate the unemployed, use the unused land, and at the same time build up a new and better social system, is to remove the unemployed and the unused land en bloc from the orbit of the general economic system and form them into closed system apart. That is the means proposed by the chief authorities who have studied this question of the land and the unemployed—Sir John Russell of Rothamstead, Professor Scott. I have gone a step further by suggesting the distressed area itself plus an agricultural district as the area to be removed.

“Father Witcutt’s plan for the Distressed Areas,” wrote "J. R. K.” in the Christian Democrat, “would effectively destroy what foreign trade they have left.” I am not a professional economist, and it may be that I have left some factor out of my considerations which would destroy the foreign trade of the proposed new economic units. Nevertheless I should like to hear the arguments proving this point.

Even if foreign countries cannot pay for exports in food, they can pay in other materials which the units themselves cannot produce.

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