Archive for October 7th, 2011

The Distributist Moment

When the Wall Street protests began a few weeks ago I took notice, but didn’t expect it to amount to much. I figured it would be like the occasional demonstration against the World Bank or other globalization meeting: a little unrest, some anarchists throwing stones, cops dispersing the bunch.

But this proved to be different; the protest is growing, and getting a lot of sympathy from outside the activist community. Two days ago union members and ordinary citizens by the thousands marched with the generally young protesters. At last count “Occupy” events have occurred in some 800 cities nationwide. Indeed, it seems to have tapped a deep unrest in the country at large. Even one of my blue collar coworkers, who a year or two ago was enamored of the Tea Party movement, expressed a wish that he could be there.

In fact, I sense a greater receptivity to a radical critique of this economic system than I have ever seen in my life. The movement of the 60s and 70s was largely fueled by anger at the war in Vietnam, and radicals for the most part had a hard time convincing many that there was something more fundamentally wrong with society. A student about to graduate from college with little or no debt and a good job waiting is unlikely to feel oppressed. And SDS folks who went to work in the factories in an attempt to garner worker support for their revolution did not get far. A man with a good union job that enables him to send his kids to parochial school, to drive a new car, and to buy a cottage on a lake for vacations is going look at you like you are crazy when you try to tell him that he must throw off his shackles.

But things have changed. We have had thirty years of the State acting in cahoots with Capital, of good jobs shipped overseas to exploit low wages, to maximize profit in places where there are no unions or environmental laws. And thirty years of deregulation, of promises that the more unfettered the capitalist the more wealth will flow to everyone. But only the hardiest of ideologues still believes that; even Alan Greenspan, Ayn Rand acolyte and former chairman of the Federal Reserve, has expressed doubt about his former faith in light of the disaster he oversaw.

Today, if you have a union job you are seeing your wages and benefits cut every contract, and in many states collective bargaining itself is under attack. And for those who work non-union jobs it is far worse. Not to mention the vast numbers of men and women who can find no employment. And that student? Today he or she graduates with a huge debt and little prospect of anything but serving coffee or toiling in some other thankless job without a future.

Meanwhile, of course, you know the rest of the story: the affluent have grown richer, CEO wages are obscene, the government bails out reckless investors and companies going broke because they were manufacturing inferior goods. Income disparity is at the highest level since the 1920s.

It seems we have reached a breaking point, and the folks in the streets may be the vanguard of a new populism, one worthy of the name.

Of course people are quick to criticize the young radicals; they do not have a 10 point program, their prescription is inchoate, they present a real mish-mash of ideas and instincts. But careful analysis and cogent planning have never been what young people have brought to any social movement. Are some of their ideas naive or confused? Of course. They are young; give them a break. What they do bring is passion, energy, and a basic grasp of a few moral truths.

When I look at what is being said on the streets of New York and other cities, I am hopeful, albeit with a few caveats. NPR yesterday reported that these young people are making decisions in a “new” way, by consensus. Of course that is nothing new at all; rather this recalls the participatory democracy of the New Left when that movement was fresh, when it was led by working class guys like Carl Oglesby, before the authoritarian Trostkyites, Maoists, and PLP punks- born of privilege one and all- ran it into the ground. What I am hearing- decentralization, hostility to corporate welfare, localism, cooperatives, etc- sounds like nothing else but distribut

Richard Aleman of The Distributist Review thought so too. Yesterday  I posted the flyer he had composed to distribute on Wall Street. Later in the day he took to the streets to pass it out. He reports that he was warmly, even enthusiastically received, that there was much interest in the third way- neither capitalist nor communist- that he was proposing.

A vibrant, non-ideological movement, critical of capitalism and corporate rule, decentralist and democratic in its instincts? Could this be, at long last, the Distributist Moment?

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The Detroit Tigers beat the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs last night, and are now going on to fight for the American League title. Having been a fan since childhood, all I can say is “Venerable Solanus Casey, pray for us!” (Capuchin Fr Solanus Casey, who worked miracles, was stationed for years at the friary in Detroit and was a Tiger fan.)

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