The further back you can look, the further forward you are likely to see. Winston Churchill.
With the release of the first film of The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, the blogosphere is rife with Middle Earth allusions. My favourite is Frances Woolley’s wonderful post (with some great comments) The Macroeconomics of Middle Earth, though other worthy entries in the same instant genre of Middle-Earth macro metaphors are Scott Sumner’s Feed the dragon (but not too much), Morton’s Central Banking in Middle-Earth, or: The Much-Maligned King Thror and Eric Crampton’s Best not to leave a live dragon out of your calculations.
There are, inevitably, also musings on the book itself, its relationship to The Lord of the Rings and what Tolkien was about, as in this nicely written piece by Richard Fernandez.
My eye was caught by this piece, which muses whether the appeal of Tolkien’s vision can be captured for progressivist causes. I tend to get nervous when folk talk of such matters as “The case for a progressive, “third way” economics”, since the most notorious “third way” was Fascism and Nazism.
The author cites a piece in St Austin Review, an international Catholic journal which, with a fine eye to timing, entitled its September/October 2012 issue Hobbits and Heroines. If one wants Catholic cultural heroes, it is hard to go past J. R. R. Tolkien (one can see that Andy Warhol is a bit embarrassing as potential cultural heroes go, devout Catholic though he was). The piece the poster cites, however, is from the January-February 2010 issue.
Written by Matthew Akers, the essay (pdf) looks at the Shire as a mythic rendition of a Distributist society. Distributism was an attempt to work out a socio-economic society that was based on private property but avoided concentrations of wealth, whether personal or corporate. Distributism was particularly strong in Anglo-Catholic circles in the late C19th and early C20th, Recently, it has seen something of a revival, along with natural law thinking and Aristotelian philosophy. In the light of the failure of command economics and the dimming of the lustre of socialism, alternative critiques of capitalism have increased cachet, hence the aforementioned progressivist musings.
Akers’ central thesis – that the Shire is a Distributist society – is solid and Akers connects the ideas and story in The Lord of the Rings to Distributist ideas in a clear, even revealing, manner. The difficulties come in trying to generate any practical lessons for public policy therefrom.
The central problem for the project of harnessing Middle Earth myth to real Earth public policy is that Tolkien’s powerful myth-building, however much its gains emotional resonance from his own experience in the Great War, connects to actual human history in only a very loose sense.
Farms of war, factories of peace
Take the connection Akers draws, which is clear enough in The Lord of the Rings, between industrialization and imperialism. It is perfectly true that more industrialized societies have powerful advantages over less industrialized societies, advantages that have been used for conquest and colonization.
It is also true that, with that limited exception, whatever connection there is between imperialism and industrialization is very far from one-sided. Indeed, one can make a strong argument that industrialization has greatly reduced the incentive for imperialism by making conquest of farming land and farmers much less important than it used to be. Imperialism was, after all, an enduring feature of thoroughly agrarian societies. As historian Niall Ferguson correctly observes, the least distinctive thing about Western civilisation is imperialism, imperialism having been a perennial feature of rulership from its earliest days.
The more gains there are to be had from intensive growth (expanding the range of inputs and using them better) and the less from extensive growth (expanding control of existing inputs), the less appealing imperialism is. Or, indeed, simple raiding. Industrialised societies have proved, over the longer term, to be considerably more peaceful than agrarian ones.
English agrarian anti-imperialist romanticism is particularly ironic, given that the very agrarian Kingdom of Wessex unified by conquest what became the Kingdom of England then proceeded, mostly not by peaceful means, to unify the entire British Isles. It used the skills developed of well-organised aggression and conquest to build up a considerable Empire before the Industrial Revolution got seriously underway. Wessex-cum-England was a comparatively well-governed realm, but an easy and peaceful neighbour it was not.
So, industrialisation affected the mode and ease of imperialism. But, in the longer term, it has greatly undermined it because it profoundly changed the relationship between land and revenue. Modern states colonise their own societies through intensive-growth funded welfare, a much easier option than colonising other societies through extensive-growth funded warfare.
The connection Akers further draws, which is also clear enough in The Lord of the Rings, between industrialization and environmental destruction is also dubious as some wider principle. That industrialization can be environmentally destructive is obvious. But so can agrarianism. What industrialization also does is both greatly expand the resources which can be devoted to environmental protection and greatly increase the willingness to do so through rising living standards, since environmental concern is clearly something of a luxury good (it goes up faster than income).
We might also note that people live longer, with far more expansive lives, in industrialized societies than in agrarian ones.
The created “organic” society
But there is a much deeper problem with the notion of a “natural” or “organic” society that Distributism celebrates. This is particularly so for Catholic theorists. As conservatism generally is so wont to do, it is profoundly (indeed willfully) ahistorical in its view of how social structures evolve. To give “the past” authority as some source of legitimacy, for it to operate as some benchmark standard, the past has to be given a coherence that then requires that great slabs of history “don’t count”.
What Catholic theorists celebrate as “natural” or “organic” society was, to a very large degree, created by deliberate public policy; often enforced with considerable brutality. It is only by writing the victims of said brutality out of the-history-that-counts that it can be held up to have the necessary coherence to function as some moral touchstone.
What does one do, for example, with the gentry and aristocracy? If they don’t count, what one can one mean by “natural” or “organic” society as something that is being lost? If they do count, then what about the processes by which they became the gentry and aristocracy? It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t peaceful. Sure, it evolved into something that worked but it evolved out of threshing around trying to find something that worked and involved a large degree of violence and exploitation.
Societies evolve to deal with particular constraints and possibilities; as those change, so do societies. Hoping to “freeze” a society when the constraints and possibilities are not so frozen is at best pointless, and at worse deeply destructive. Conservatism’s tendency to freeze-frame the results of past evolution, and then rail against present evolution, doesn’t show a respect for history, but a systematic blindness to it. “The” past was every bit as much a mess of moral confusion and dispute as the present, which is why “the” past can only be given an apparent moral coherence by ignoring the awkward bits.
It is also why part of the process of undermining transmitted oppressions is the recovery of forgotten or repressed historical experience. Oppression is about being discounted and if a group is going to count in the present then so will its experiences in the past. If a group turns out to have an enduring history, then they are not a dispensable aberration. If their history is an oppressive one, then the past lacks that anchoring moral coherence. Again and again, the “lessons” of history are only conservative by careful editing of which episodes, and whose role in them, count.
What makes the notion of a “natural” or “organic” society even more problematic is that history is not an ideas-free zone. Public policy also has a history and it is history pervaded by the power of ideas. In Europe, from the C4th on, Christian ones. The moral debates, the “culture wars” as Americans call them, of the last few decades make far more sense if one realises that they represent the reversal of decisions Christians thought were settled in the C4th, C5th or similar centuries under pressure from changing constraints and possibilities.
Settled in those centuries, moreover, not by gentle persuasion or natural evolution but by sustained, and often ruthless, use of state power. The refusal to recognize same-sex relationships was not, for example, a “natural” or “organic” evolution but the recurring and brutal repression of a vulnerable minority motivated by imposed ideas. Same-sex marriage has a long, if somewhat interrupted, history; as monotheist writings acknowledged when their ideas were not dominant but then wrote out of history as they became so.
Strict consanguinity rules are also hardly “natural” or “organic”. But they had a profound effect on the evolution of European society, including as part of Pope Gregory I’s Papal Revolution, vividly described (pdf) by Indian economist Deepak Lal:
the answers that Pope Gregory I gave to some questions that the first Archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine, had sent in 597 concerning his new charges. Four of these nine concerned issues related to sex and marriage. Gregory’s answers overturned the traditional Mediterranean and Middle Eastern patterns of legal and customary practices in the domestic domain. The traditional system was concerned with the provision of an heir to inherit family property, and allowed marriage to close kin, marriages to close affines or widows of close kin, the transfer of children by adoption , and finally concubinage, which is a form of secondary union. Gregory banned all four practices. There was for instance, no adoption of children allowed in England until the 19th century. There was no basis for these injunctions in Scripture, Roman law or the existing customs in the areas that were Christianised.
Even more basic was the stripping of women of control over their fertility through the banning of contraception, abortion, divorce or any recognition of rape within marriage. Women could not block conception, terminate conception, leave a marriage or legally enforce saying no to their husband. This profound undermining of the decision-making status of women naturally led to their loss of status as property-owners as well. This process of stripping women of control over their fertility and status as decision-makers took place both with the Christianisation of Roman Law and the Christianisation of proto-common law. A free woman in C8th Anglo-Saxon England had far more legal standing and opportunities than one in C18th England and the loss was directly a result of the imposed ideas of Christianity. Even today, the alleged “pro-life” campaigns are patently about stripping women of control over their fertility, not minimising the number of aborted fetuses.
So, what is passed off as “natural” or “organic” society is nothing of the kind. It was profoundly shaped by an imposed ideology that ruthlessly used state power to get its way. Hence the lifting of those long-standing restrictions has very much been a process of de-Christianising law. A society that accepts the diversity of the human is far more “natural” than one that wages an unending war against it.
There is no information from the future, all we can have to guide us are expectations built from experience and other information. But Churchill is right, the long perspective is a revealing perspective. Especially if you take history as it actually was, not just the convenient bits.
Tolkien’s ouevre is a wonderful feat of thought, invention and reworked myths. It has made, and is making, fine cinema. But it does not provide any sort of guide to, or inspiration for, public policy, however indirectly. Nor can it turn notions of a “natural” or “organic” society into anything over than a self-deluding myth about history and the dynamics of social evolution.