Christian Social Teaching and the Politics of Money: Attempt at Liveblogging II

Second day of the conference, fewer people in the chairs today. Find it interesting how small this conference is compared to the Idea of Communism conference. I won’t speculate on why, but just note it. Anyhow, today is almost entirely devoted to distributism. That would suggest it is the predominant form of Christian social teaching, though a friend humorously suggested that Mugabe is the truest distributist in history. Polemical! More below.

9:14am: Prof. Norman Wirzba starts off by presenting a modified agrarianism. He read it out slowly, but I was working on getting this thing up so missed it in its precise formulation. Something about taking seriously the relationship between human beings and the land – we understand place through working with it. Claims that it is better than other forms of “ecology” (he means environmentalism) that focuses on wilderness. Also claims that it isn’t about being a farmer and Luddite. Focuses on Wendel Berry, who is quite popular amongst progressive-ish evangelicals, but who I am not a fan. I was happy to see him emphasize the importance of addressing ecology and environmentalism if we ever hope to talk about economy.

9:22am: Thinks that technology, urbanization, and wage labour pulls people out of community and life as something one is a member of. That depersonalized shopping, screens, and transportation is anti-communal. I think this is a little silly, as urbanization is very communal and perhaps much more ecologically responsible than living in spread out rural environs. A situation that is completely divorced from what is actually possible for human beings to do anyway. The task is urban ecology, not this sort of agrarian dystopia where we’re hoping for half the population to die off.

9:32am: Thinks if we want to understand how to be a member of this community we have to turn to the Eucharist. That’s where we learn to be a community, that and the table in the home.

9:35am: Christian community is an organic community. OK, sure, but organic organizations of any group isn’t in itself good. Cancer is organic, but we’re not always going on about how cancer is an organic organization on the human body.

9:42am: Ends by saying that we need to bring agrarianism and the Eucharist together.

9:46am: The “sort of economist” continues with his grumpy questions (I’m starting to like him) and asks “Really?!” Basically his point is what does this really mean? We need to feed less people? Cut the population in half? The responses are not very satisfying.

9:55am: Prof. John Médaille is next up. Thinks that an economic system can be equitable and efficient even if most economists think it can be one but not both. The root of this confusion is a misunderstanding of what kind of science economic science is.

9:58am: Quotes some Ratzinger thing about morality vs. moralism. Then says that there is dialogical relationship between theology, as “queen of the sciences”, and economic science. As queen (ugh) it doesn’t decide the language of the sciences, but must speak to each science in terms intelligible to it. It is both sovereign over these sciences and must humbly learn from them. Not sure how you do both of those things, but I suppose I understand the desire for it even if it seems somewhat pernicious.

10:01am: Thinks that distributism isn’t some ism amongst others, but underlies any attempt to insert justice into economic science.

10:04am: Every science is responsible to their own methodology and its axioms, but without being responsible to “the hierarchy of truth” related to the “higher sciences” there is no normative check on the science. Chemists would be able to come up with positions that contradict physics. I sort of like this, it is a clear way of talking about axiomatics in a way that doesn’t just collapse into a fideism. Still, I think what we might end up with her is that economic science must become more fully a science (he says it is currently a kind of astrology) and that the highest science is theology as that “science” that protects justice. He is sort of a Kantian in his discussion of practical reason and it seems unnecessary to make the hierarchy of truth a hierarchy at all. This would mean that the axioms of the “higher” and the “highest” are not subject to the same responsibilities as the “lower” ones. I don’t want to live under the regime of King physics, but make the relationship between the sciences (and the arts & humanities) a flat or democratic one where they must work together in an egalitarian mode.

10:12am: He moves to a slightly more technical economic summary of how cash economies work. While I’m reasonably educated on economics from high school and college I can’t really comment much on what he is saying and I’m having a little trouble following him quickly enough to cover it here.

10:21am: Fun fact: median wage not changed since 1973 despite the increase in production by workers.

10:25am: Nice little discussion of rent and the power relationships that often lead to the exploitation of the non-landowner.

10:30am: The whole point of distributism is the putting distributive justice back into economic science and acts. That means giving people the property that is fair to the amount they contribute to production. Hearing this focus on production and property I wonder if the unproductive are the exception for distributism. Not that they wouldn’t know what to “do with them”, but that it would be hard to say how these persons should be cared for in a just and egalitarian society under the dominant terms of their narrative.

10:35am: First question from Philip Goodchild. Asks a question of how the practical aspect of the axiom of distributive justice where you receive in relation to what you produce. Essentially asking if there isn’t something inherent in capitalism that leads to inequity. Médaille sort of answers it, but sort of gets around it, so Philip counters with a slightly different kind of monopoly from the particularity of land. This is kind of a parry and thrust going on here. Médaille argues that these sorts of monopolies aren’t natural, but governments secure monopolies. New question from another participant who moves the example to “entrepreneurs” or invention. Médaille in his response sort of sounds like a free market advocate, but with some form of non-coercive distributism. Discusses some examples where inventions weren’t given patents (government allowed monopolies).

10:43am: Thinking about it Médaille might actually be closer to the Left-Communist idea that if there were not patents things would be better developed or more creatively allowed to work. Open source software kind of stuff. They are now talking about WindowsOS, something about being in favour of stealing (claims Bill Gates “stole” the software) but not then being able to patent it.

10:49pm: Break. Back in 30.

11:21am: The Plenary panel for the day begins. I don’t really know what to expect from this panel. Dr. John Inge is speaking first, Bishop of Worcester (I love their sauce). Speaking about the community and the threat to the community posed by the market. Pointing out that people who are long-time residents of a community do more for the community in a disproportionate manner and that the migration spurred on by the capitalist system means that communities lose their support.

11:30am: Focuses on “place” and “inhabitation”. Thinks that the experience of the local Eucharistic community, gathered around a concern for the universal, can teach us about these things.

11:32am: Says that most of “our generation” has lost the experience of being formed by a community, without habit or common custom or dress. Thinks it is because our culture has turned its back on the Christian inheritance. Why is it that community is always good? Or not a sense of why that community was rejected and why, for the most part, many people don’t want to be formed by it? Of course I am not celebrating the community that – for all its good parts and there are good parts! – we find ourselves currently dwelling in now, but the task is to build a better community, not to return to one that, for its benefits, was also a failure. Boldness is called for, not nostalgia.

11:38am: Northcott asks a very nice question about the worry of this sort of thinking, anti-State-distributed-charity, leading to the idea that this sort of justice ruins any chance for proximate charity. The Bishop says he agrees and tries to explain how he sees the relationship between the two.

11:40am: Father Joe, a student here, asks a very nice question about how displaced people fit in this narrative that makes “place” so central. A lot of the Bishop’s talk was dependent on a Christian reading of Heidegger, and I think that might have made this such an issue, but I wonder if it is true of Heidegger himself. True place of dwelling is the body of Christ and for displaced people is to give them that place. I’m not sure what that means.

11:46am: Phillip Blond is up next. Simon Oliver introduces him by saying that he is growing in stature around Westminster and that “Red Toryism” is on everyone’s lips. Blond is going to be presenting on distributism and why he thinks it helps us to understand the crisis. He is going to look at English distributists like Belloc and Chesterton and speculate on what they would have said about the financial crisis.

11:48am: Says that the standard “myth” of the crisis where the system failed to regulate loans given to poor who were trying to gain property. This is one of Blond’s key modes of thinking about the economy – property is what gives people freedom.

11:55am: Lots of stats and numbers. Fading.

11:58am: Saying things opposite to Pettifor yesterday. Trying to say that the lower public/government debt then the lower private debt, arguing against government spending I think.

12:07pm: Wants to put up firewalls that keep international capital from putting local lending practices at risk. Wants to “scale up” local economies, says “find a way” so I guess there isn’t a model for that. Localism is big today, but I still don’t understand why.

12:11pm: Says that Obama’s plan won’t work because something to do with multiples. Debt is taken on as at 30 or 40 time more than than the actual debt and so these can’t be written off. I don’t know if this is true or not, but economists, and Blond is not an economist, are saying that Obama has done well to pump money into the system (though I think there is plenty to be critical of here, like why not plug that money, not into the banks, but into something like the Green New Deal?). Blond thinks that we’re going to “double-dip into recession” and lead the rest of the world into some kind of apocalypse – without Catholic social teaching.

12:17pm: Welfareism is hand in hand with slavery. You know, except, not.

12:18pm: The thing I hate about these sorts of presentations is that we’re really largely beholden to believing the analysis of people with some charts. I’m not trained enough in economics to really catch these issues, and most people aren’t, but we get presented with very differing views and both with some signs of authority. The worry then becomes that, and we all live in the consequences of this, we only find out the truth of these ideologies when they are attempted and put into some form of practice where we have to suffer the consequences if they go disastrously wrong. I tend to dislike Blond’s vision of politics because of how tied it is to a nostalgia for British colonialism, supports family values fetishes, promotes a localism that I think misunderstands labour, promotes a sense of Christianity as identity that is likely idolatrous and can lead to seriously questionable race politics. Still, I have no idea if he’s right about his economic analysis and while I want to side largely with Pettifor, she isn’t here today and so I can’t see her respond. And I recognize I expect her to be right because of my commitment to the truth of her politics and expect Blond to be wrong because of my commitment to resisting the obscurity of his politics. I find this entirely unsatisfactory though. Blond ended up speaking too long for many questions. It ended up being a technical question of his analysis.

12:25pm: Dr. Luke Bretherton speaking on Free Fair Trade as consumerism. Asking if charity can be practiced through capitalist structures.

12:27pm: Adam will be excited to hear that Bretherton is quoting Daniel Bell.

12:30pm: I feel kind of bad that I pretty much tuned out after that. He is going on about how capitalism disciplines our desire. He calls the Montgomery Bus Boycott an example of “political consumerism”, which is fine, and then says it was a series of individual acts (really?) that was coordinated by the local churches. Christianity can shape and direct political consumerism like this, but there other ways of doing that, like through non-Christian modes, that will follow utilitarian lines that are “questionable and highly contestable and miss the point completely”. Its worth originates as a political and moral gesture (are these not material themselves?).

12:41pm: Looks like his final verdict is that Free (my bad) Fair Trade is kind of ok, but not perfect. Well, yep, most of us think that, but I guess he’s adding a rather academic analysis under the regime of a particular Christian piety. Now he’s quoting Daniel Bell again. At some point I should try to explain to my Christian friends why Bell’s use of Deleuze and Guattari is severely limited and how their work may actually be more helpful than his appropriation of them.

12:47pm: John Hughes, an Oxbridge guy, whose research was on romantic critiques of capitalism. More distributist going on using Chesterton and Belloc and other Christian types.

12:51pm: I’m not sure I can do this one. Lots of talk of making capitalism moral and saying that this is a nice development to see coming out of people like Brown and Cameron. I’m pretty glad that Bono has done such a good job of spreading the politics of virtue around.

12:54pm: Benedict takes the Christian critique of capitalism to a new level. If that is the case then why doesn’t he decry capitalism? Support Catholic social teaching against socialism? And why, again, should we care that he is now saying some things that agree with anti-capitalist positions that have been promoted for nearly two decades now and that have mutated amongst some of the middle and upper classes into “liberal communism”? That has been one of the most disappointing aspects of this conference for me. As someone without any interest or any commitment to Catholic social teaching I would expect some kind of argument or wooing for those of us who are not convinced, but it is as if the assumption is that we are all already convinced and so most speakers have simply celebrated the encyclical with minor criticisms here and there. There has not been a sense of why they even like it, other than because it is coming out of the Vatican.

1:02pm: Compass and Red Toryism the two extensions of the British Romantics critique of capitalism and positive project in contemporary British society.

1:07pm: Runs through the differences between the two and focuses on their differing relationship to the State. Compass wants a Strong state and Blond thinks its a monopoly in itself.

1:10pm: First time I’ve heard anyone mention internationalism. Hughes deserves a small pat on the back for that. That and not making a joke about standing between us and lunch. Which he is.

1:15pm: Philip Blond given two minutes to respond to Hughes engagement with Blond’s Red Toryism. Thinks it is a fiction to think the State can be an equal player, but it can play a role if the local has more power than the State. Contra the Left, most left-wing people are right-wing. Then he goes on to say that people do better in stable relationships (claims that its science who tells us this – who is being more utilitarian now?!) Huh? Hour break.

2:35pm: The round table begins. There are 10 members of it, though it seems that 8 out of the 10 are representing largely the same position, though I’m happy to see it includes our grumpy “sort-of-economist”. I don’t think I agree much with him, but the utter disdain on his face is so refreshing I can’t help but dig it.

2:44pm: Round table is actually three short papers and then a kind of exclusive 10-person discussion. Right now Paul S Williams is speaking and has just encouraged us to pray for people at the forefront of this sort of debate. I don’t think it was any kind of joke. I feel slightly uncomfortable now.

2:46pm: Only Christian communities praying and worshiping together can sustain us in developing an alternative vision. Neat.

2:53pm: Last speaker, didn’t catch his name, thinks we need to give more power to the shareholder.

3:07pm: Two Catholic Italian economists who start off telling us that every instance of development that they have seens springs out of a “human dynamic”. Umm… yeah? Then says that we it begins with the humanity we have that finds its identity in Christ. They say that this is a different way and we can see it in history. That means that this near anti-capitalism certainly is not the “different” of most alter-globalization activists. It is some return, perhaps to Christiandom?

3:13pm: He runs through a Catholic criticism of the current society.

3:21pm: I can’t really follow because I’m tired and they both have very heavy accents. Alex is bothered by a lot of what they are saying.

3:23pm: This really isn’t a round table. The table itself is a rectangle, but it is just 10 people sitting in front while other people give papers without them asking questions or discussing any of it.

3:27pm: So I guess the “human dynamic” thing has to do with how creating a just economic order isn’t down to rules and institutions, but virtues and habit. Milbank is now saying something along those lines and saying that these virtues and habits are situated in cultures and traditions.

3:35pm: Archbishop Martinez is speaking now. Said up front he’s only going to repeat what has already been said. Conference is definitely not going to end in 10 minutes.

3:38pm: Am I the only one who thinks this insistence that without Jesus Christ there is no human identity is a form of nihilism?

3:46pm: The sort-of-economist is speaking now and says that he doesn’t remember the word capitalism showing up in the encyclical and thinks himself that the word isn’t actually very helpful for thinking about the modern economy.

3:48pm: Compared to other human inventions the economy works quite well. That seems a strange statement to make considering he lists all these other things (the family, life, environment, etc.) as destroyed and yet they are all tied into that economy.

3:50pm: Points out, rightly, that we’ve actually done quite a lot of pretty cool things. Lots of people are alive (though the majority are in poverty), nutritional needs are meet more than they were 100 years ago, people live longer, more leisure, etc. Some of this is a bit silly, but it is important to be honest about the advances that have been made. I certainly wouldn’t want to deal with health care 100 years ago.

3:53pm: Thinks overall you see people working well together and cooperating and that this is why capitalism is a bad name for things because it isn’t ruinous competition. Where does this guy live? I think I want to move there.

3:56pm: So this guy is Edward Hadas, an assitant editor of something called Breaking Views. He has just been asked to end since we’re way over time. Ends the talk by saying no to the idea of capitalism and yes to the idea of the Pope that the economy needs to be centred in society and not seen as an alienating aspect to society. Closes with a quote from the encyclical that essentially says the human relationships of solidarity and friendship can be conducted in economic activity (not the market) because it is part and parcel of human identity.

4:04pm: The “round table” has begun and it is more of the participants standing up and reasserting some of the positions they already covered. Medeille says that they can’t lose the interpretation war after the encyclical, because of the Wall Street Journal headline that proclaimed “Pope Endorses Capitalism”. Milbank then stands up and presents a series of reasons he thinks that Hadas is wrong, or “not plausible”, and says he is pretty sure Benedict agrees with him. A lot of what he is saying I kind of agree with, that the economy is the thing that has destabilized all those things Hadas is upset about losing, etc. Hadas responds by saying that Milbank mischaracterizes what he said and says that he thinks an objective view shows that real goods have been accomplished. He then accuses Milbank of a kind of Marxist-esque economic determinism.

4:13pm: Looks like it is ending half an hour late on a nausea-inducing pious note. I’m going to pack up. Hope you found in enjoyable.

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10 Responses to “Christian Social Teaching and the Politics of Money: Attempt at Liveblogging II”

  1. Alex Says:

    Surely you mean fair trade, not free trade? Really annoyed i missed this talk as this kind of stuff is a hard and fast apology for capitalism along precisely the same lines as the iea and acton make. Hope someone asks this.

  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Yeah, my bad. Corrected.

  3. myles Says:

    Thanks for these. Explain your discontent with Berry? I worked a farm one summer in grad school and was struck with how little he talks about the nuts and bolts of agrarian life, i.e. how much it sucks to get up at 5.30 to milk goats.

  4. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I should really say more about it than I’m going to right now. I think that people like Berry write beautiful fantasy, but ultimately the reality of a future where his vision is actual would be dystopic. I don’t want to be “in touch with the land” in the same way that farmers are. The whole point of living in community and setting it up in an ethical manner is to spread that kind of work around. Not so that you’re always conscience about being from the land and giving continual thinks, but to actually act ethically in a manner that feels as if it is normal. We also need to reject this romantic notion of proper ecological relationships being in the countrysides or the near-wilderness areas. Urban ecology has become a very important line of thinking for ecologists and environmentalists. Human beings are not more atomized in cities and cities can actually be a way of causing a lot less human damage to the global ecosystem. There is more, but I need to go back to listening to the round table.

  5. John Tyson Says:

    Appreciate the live blogging.

    The nostalgic vision of Berry, which seems to be adopted by Wirzba here, is simply bizarre. Some of these suggestions – returning to the table, land, the sheer act of eucharist – are about as likely to happen as the NBA returning to peach baskets. It’s just not going to happen, never.

  6. Lee Says:

    Enjoying the live blogging and the critical perspective on CST. I’m also nonplussed by many aspects of Berry-style agrarianism. Wonder if you could recommend some entry-level reading on urban ecology?

  7. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    My knowledge of urban ecology comes mostly from my interactions with Liam Heneghan at DePaul University and the Institute for Nature and Culture. I’m not sure that there is anything like an introductory text to it, but rather the majority of it is done in scientific journals. You could take a look at the entry on Wikipedia, it isn’t bad, and have a look around the Chicago Wilderness website. Essentially the question becomes of deploying ecological science in urban contexts to understand what the ecological relationships are there and then applying environmental management of those relationships to bring about the most biological diverse and healthy ecosystem possible in such an environment. I will think about some of the papers I’ve read and pass those along when I get a chance.

  8. Dave Belcher Says:

    Just wanted to stop in to say how much I enjoyed these Anthony. And I do hope that Alex has been filling in with some of his excellent Philip Blond impersonations in my absence. Seeing all this liveblogging made me nostalgic of the fun time in Rome — sorry for the nostalgia, but at least it’s not for Christendom, even if it is for Rome…sorta! Peace.

    dave b

  9. Brad Johnson Says:

    Let me step to my fellow Kentuckian’s defense. Does Berry actually say agrarianism is the way forward for everybody? I simply understood him as advocating sound farming principles for farmers. After all, for all the urban ecology in the world, there will still need to be sound rural communities and agricultural practice, too. Perhaps he has been stridently anti-urban in things I’ve not read, but that doesn’t seem to me central to what he’s about. Perhaps what that crank James Kunstler is about, but not Berry.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Sounds like Philip Blond needs to be pied at his next public appearance. Maybe you can arrange for two or three people to run up and do a two-handed simultaneous pie-ing of Milbank and Blond in rapid succession.

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