St. Paul's Cathedral, London

[OK, so I started typing a short intro to the Milbank piece, and this is what came out.  Not so short.

NB: don’t know a term, highlight it, there should be a “learn more” button that appears]

One of my mentors–a Church historian–once said of theologian John Milbank, “I think his mother understood him.  Once.”  Of course, he actually appreciated Milbank’s work, books such as Theology and Social Theory, and The Word Made Strange, as well as his work in the Radical Orthodoxy movement in reclaiming and reasserting the Augustinian tradition for the contemporary world.  All that aside, Milbank can sometimes be a bit hard for people to interpret (I’ve seen several comments to that effect on various blogs discussing the article below).  Even so, Milbank is, in my experience, always worth the effort, and the article below is no exception.

One of the things that Milbank mentions in the article is the rightful connection to many of the things the protestors are upset about and the work of the think tank–of which Milbank is a trustee–ResPublica.  ResPublica’s director is Philip Blond who has recently been making rounds in the US sharing his ideas (dubbed Red Toryism in the UK) with American Conservatives.  I’m of the opinion that American conservatives have a lot to learn from the revived localism of the Red Tories, not least because it hearkens back to some of the central premises of traditional conservatism–American, but also more broadly.

One of the primary things to keep in mind–and it’s a good Augustinian lesson–is that there is absolutely no reason, given human nature, to believe that markets will function in an ethical way when individuals do not make ethical choices.  In other words, the “invisible hand” of the market will turn into an “invisible fist” of crushing human sin if not regulated in particular ways.  To the great detriment of libertarian thought, our choices do have consequences for others, and our collective choices have even more.  The market is, in this way, little more than a more formalized and slower moving, but no less fickle, instantiation of mob mentality, and since the driving force of capitalism is self-interest (AKA, greed) there is a constant need for a push toward “enlightened self-interest,” that is, self interest that takes into account the needs of others.  This problem was one upon which people as varied as Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Alexis de Tocqueville agreed.  de Tocqueville and Smith agreed in the need for moral constraints on capitalism (don’t really want to get into Marx’s prescription in this post).

All agreed: Capitalism has the power to project and magnify human sinfulness at least as much, if not more than it has the power to provide for human freedom (of course, the experience of Communism in the 20th Century demonstrates that pretty much any system humanity designs will reflect our flaws to a greater or lesser degree and the real question is how we get one to reflect our virtues.  In a contest with 20th century communism, capitalism wins, but of course, capitalism is no longer wed to democracy, as a thriving Chinese market attests), which makes the vigor with which some Christians and conservatives oppose any sort of regulation odd (just consider how that word is used as a curse in the GOP debates).  This despite the fact that the removal of some post depression regulations helped to set the stage for the 08 crash.

All of this leads to the question of whether there is a better way, and of whether there are any principles that Christians can use to engage in these discussions and debates.  I believe there are, and many of them are expressed well–at least as a place to start–in a theory known as Distributism or Distributivism.

Now, for many Americans, habituated as we are to react negatively to the use of the term “distribution” or “redistribution,” this probably raises red flags–but it really shouldn’t.  The primary critique Distributism levels at unrestrained capitalism and communism is that they are simply mirror images of the same error: both concentrate too much power among too few people.  If Communism concentrates the means of production with the state, which is then operated by a political elite giving the people no recourse, then Capitalism has a tendency to gravitate toward monopoly and to concentrate the means of production (and wealth) in the hands of a few business leaders.  Distributism argues that both are flawed, and that the counter to these sorts of oppressive situations is to spread the ownership of the means of production among as many people as possible–employee owned corporations are an example of this (my favorite example is of the company that manufactured my pressure cooker, Fagor, whose parent company Mondragon, is one of the most famous experiments in distributist thinking).  While often strongly–and rightly–associated with Roman Catholicism through the works of Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, there have been many Anglicans who contributed to distributist thinking.  Folks such as Maurice Reckitt, V.A. Demant, Arthur Penty and Dorothy Sayers.

This portion of the distributist argument should resonate with Americans, particularly Southerners who have had any exposure to the Southern Agrarians or Jeffersonian ideas of the yeoman farmer etc… The basic idea is that a free people are a people who enjoy very little dependence (in terms of an unequal power relationship) upon others, while striving to build communities together and work for the common good.  In an agrarian society, this meant the small farmer cooperating with other small farmers.  In a corporate world it can mean such arrangements as employees who own an interest in the company.  In both cases the idea is that participation and being invested in the business or, more broadly, invites care and participation.  Incidentally, this is one of the reasons the founders intially limited sufferage to land owning males: the idea was that landowners had a vested interest in the success of the community and in the governance of the country.  I don’t think that they followed the right impulse in limiting sufferage, as the better impulse is to increase “investment” in society.  To quote Francis Bacon: “…money is like muck [manure], not good lest it be spread”(see context).

All this is simply to note that Milbank is challenging the church to provide a framework and a language for such concerns as they are expressed by the Occupy folks.  He is also, I think, nudging the occupy folks toward a recognition that there are ideas out there that are rooted in tradition, yet are fresh for the current day.

It has turned out that, unbeknown to themselves, the occupiers outside St Paul’s Cathedral are camped on a hornet’s nest. This nest is the secret point where the ancient arrangements of the English polity interlock with contemporary global finance.

This interlocking has two aspects.

First, as initially Maurice Glasman and now George Monbiot have pointed out, certain freewheeling banking practices, which helped to cause our current global recession, were only made possible by a routing of American monetary activity through the City of London.

This is because the City of London is uniquely independent of the normal scope of national law, while, under Tony Blair, the power of corporate financial bodies over its local self-government was considerably increased.

Yet, far from this representing a survival of some sort of medieval corruption into the modern era (as Monbiot implies), it is rather (as Glasman far more accurately insists) the result of a perversion of properly Medieval participatory and guild arrangements, originally designed to subordinate commercial to social purposes, in the modern era.

And far from this perversion being some sort of anomaly, it rather indicates, in the sharpest possible way, just how the supposedly “free market” depends upon aberrant legal privileges that license and underwrite a kind of international buccaneering that we have absurdly come to see as normative.

Something as apparently abstract and natural as “the laws of the market” turn out to be genealogically traceable to geographical and customary peculiarities.

Conversely, this realisation allows us to see how we can begin to construct a fairer international market, always linking economic to social value, if we reform the City of London and more generally erect a different legal framework within which economic transactions can operate.

For this reason, Maurice Glasman and Blue Labour have been endeavouring to persuade the occupiers to make the status of the City of London the specific object of their protest.

The argument here is that if we are really being true to medieval intentions, we would abolish the distinction between the City of London and London as Metropolis and seek to ensure that all Londoners have a voice in the managing of the whole of London’s wealth; while also trying to ensure (through some renewed guild structure and a bicameral ruling institution, including a vocational chamber) that all businesses and other free associations have a rightful say in the wider city’s governance.

Of course, this cannot be the only issue that the occupiers – precisely as participants in a global protest movement – should be concerned with. But local protests, in order to be effective, must have a specific local object; in this case, they are presented with one that could indeed make an immense global difference.

It would seem that the protesters are thus far refusing to move in this more concentrated direction, solely because of the unwarranted influence of a few communist and anarchist extremists. The later are not the real heart of the Occupy movement, which is remarkably a spontaneous populist expression, not clearly linked to any established political tendencies.

Indeed, its implicit rejection of the alliance of financial and bureaucratic oligarchies aligns it naturally with the new “post-liberal” politics, which ResPublica exists to support.

Yet it is only if they adopt some such more specific goal that the protestors will be equal to the symbolic resonance of the local hornet’s nest where they find themselves encamped.

Read it all via Anglican Church spectacularly blind to protest symbolism – Opinion – ABC Religion & Ethics (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

It turns out, as I was grabbing links for this post, I ran across a short piece on the ResPublica site discussing the appropriate role of the Church in situations such as the one we find ourselves in, I share a portion of it below, but I encourage you to go check it out as well (it’s not too long):

On a national and international scale too, the Church has sought to call ‘immoral markets’ and ‘vacuous values’ to account. In yesterday’s FT, we absorbed the Archbishop of Canterbury’s assertion that the Church of England has a ‘proper interest in the ethics of the financial world’, advocating a tax on financial transactions as a way in which markets could begin to be re-modelled. And only last week did we see the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s response to the crises of market functionality, pressing for further regulatory action of economies that have got out of hand.


But perhaps where the Church can make the most difference is not found so much in suggesting ways in which we can regulate markets, but ways in which we can transform them. Whilst calling unethical practice to account is indeed central to the Church’s role in wider political life, it has evidently not quite quenched the thirst of those calling for immediate action. Abstract responses to what has already become a rather ‘abstract market’ will not strike at the cause. Markets are based on and emerge from social, human interaction – a fundamental basis which must necessarily first be assumed.


Such transformative action is also not only something that the Church can simply talk about, but crucially something that the Church can do. (read it all here)

List of related/interesting links:

The Front Porch Republic
The Distributist Review