Patrick Toner: Chesterton and Occupy Wall Street | BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism at Wake Forest University

Patrick Toner: Chesterton and Occupy Wall Street

toner2011Patrick Toner, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

If the Occupy Wall Street protests have a “basic message,” it may be this: “Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality and its unrestrained political power—in the form of crony capitalism and ownership of political institutions—is destroying financial security for everyone else.”[1] Interestingly, the problem of “crony capitalism” has also been mentioned recently by some prominent Tea Party-related politicians.  One might have thought that the Tea Party and the OWS crowd couldn’t get much further apart, but at least in their disgust for crony capitalism, they seem to agree.  Indeed, they literally overlap, since some Tea Party-inclined folks are participating in the OWS protests.

The diversity among OWS protesters is sometimes mentioned as a virtue of the protests: “[The participants] may disagree about the solution, or have different desires, but they agree that the common cause is oligarchical capitalism. Coming together creates a strong sense of camaraderie and solidarity…”[2] But as the essayist and novelist GK Chesterton wrote, “[This] is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim.  We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other’s eyes out… The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal.  We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity?”[3]

Say that two people agree that crony capitalism is bad.  One thinks the way to fix it is to institute “real” capitalism, and the other thinks the way to fix it is to abolish capitalism altogether.  Have these two really “come together” in any meaningful way?  I think not.  They agree on the social evil, but they have intractable disagreements over the social ideal.  Perhaps it would be helpful to them to consider another proposed ideal.

Chesterton’s “Distributism” calls for productive property to be widely distributed, rather than held by few.  This is at odds, he thinks, with both capitalism and socialism, which tend towards consolidation and bigness.  It doesn’t matter, fundamentally, if productive property becomes centralized by falling into the hands of the state, or by falling into the hands of ever fewer and fewer capitalists.  The result, for workers, is the same.  Distributism pushes against that tendency to consolidation.  In short, the more capitalists, the better.

The Distributist will endorse a good many of the criticisms that OWS protesters raise against our current system.  But she will find many of the suggested “improvements” far worse than the disease.  That’s because she has a different social ideal than either the “conservative” or the “progressive” participants in OWS.  For Chesterton thinks we must never lose sight of the fundamental fact about us humans: we are creatures.  This has deep implications (not always noticed even by those who share Chesterton’s Christianity), among them this: “[E]very man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self-expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and even small.”[4] This ideal of smallness starkly contrasts with our current cult of bigness.  But bigness, thinks Chesterton, is inhuman.  And it’s hard to see how an inhuman system can be a sane one.[5]


[1] Glenn Greenwald, Salon, September 29, 2011, cited from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupy_Wall_Street, accessed October 19, 2011.

[2] Brian Landever, http://occupywallst.org/forum/clarifying-the-purpose-of-occupy-wall-street/, accessed October 19, 2011.  I do not mean to suggest that this blog post speaks for all or most of the protesters.

[3] What’s Wrong With the World (Repr. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 16-17.

[4] What’s Wrong With the World, 42.

[5] Anyone wanting a more serious introduction to Distributism than I can give in this short piece would do well to start with Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, and then turn to Chesterton’s books The Outline of Sanity and What’s Wrong With the World, as well as Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State.  (All are available from various publishers.)  EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (London: Blond and Briggs, 1973) is in many respects a Distributist manifesto.  A more recent work on Distributism is John C. Medaille’s Toward a Truly Free Market (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2010).

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