The Global Crisis: Lessons from the Middle Ages
Present-day admirers of G.K. Chesterton (The Outline of Sanity) and E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful) are sometimes accused of wanting to return to the Middle Ages, and can be easily mocked for wanting to do so with full access to modern medicine and laptops.
But neither Chesterton nor Schumacher were so naïve. They were calling for a particular kind of progress – towards a more human-centered, though still technologically sophisticated and creatively developing, society. They both realized that there are particular concepts and ideas that were prevalent in medieval Christendom that we might indeed learn from, precisely to make that progress possible. In fact great cultural movements are often brought about by importing ideas from the past into a new social context – the Renaissance is one example.
So what can we learn from the Middle Ages to get us out of our current global crisis?
As a sympathizer with Chesterton’s philosophy of “Distributism”, and with the recent attempt to revive it by the “progressive conservatives,” I can suggest at least three things in order to encourage further debate.
The Importance of Family
In medieval times, as in most times and places throughout human history, the basic unit of human society was the family – by which I mean the extended family (in extreme form the tribe or clan). The simple reason for this is that we reproduce in pairs. Furthermore, the best way for children to be socialized and educated is in the context of loving family relationships.
In recent years the traditional ideal of the family and the bonds that hold it together have been systematically attacked and weakened, but the destruction of the family is far from an essential ingredient in our notion of progress. The demolition of this tradition is more likely to be the cause of widespread social degradation and cultural devastation. No doubt there are ways the family can be improved, and ways in which family members can be more adequately protected from abuse, but the family itself is the seed-bed and crucible of civil society, and the best safeguard of human dignity.
The attempt to extract and abstract people from their families (ironically portrayed as an ideal in Plato’s Republic) is almost certain to result in naked warfare between the will of the individual and the will of the state – a war that the individual cannot win. It is the family and civil society that envelop and alone protect the individual against dictators and tyrants. The network of responsibilities and rights that accrue to a person embedded in familial and civil relationships – simply by virtue of that belonging – will not be adequately protected by a Bill of Rights when times get tough and powerful interests are at stake.
Something similar applies in the economic field. It should not be the case in our world that a son or daughter must necessarily enter a trade or profession determined by their parents, but the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next within the family can be enriching rather than impoverishing. If a business is owned and run by a family there is much more likelihood that it will be run with an eye to the long-term future (“sustainability”). If the family is central, then an economy of gift and covenant – which is one way of describing what the family is – will take precedence over market exchange and economic calculation. The market has its place, but it should not take over the entire town, let alone the entire civilization.
The Condemnation of Usury
Think for a moment about the present banking crisis. The trigger was the collapse of the American housing market, which brought tumbling around our ears the global house of cards that had been built on sub-prime mortgages – a vast structure of derivatives traded without thought of eventual consequences and without transparency. The greed of bankers and short-term opportunism of politicians were to blame for the crisis, but what made this escalation of layer upon layer of credit possible was partly a loss of proper legal restraint on the interest charged when lending money – a sin condemned by medieval Christianity, Judaism and Islam under the name of usury.
Of course, the charging of interest was eventually justified by medieval theologians such as Aquinas as a payment for risk. The consequent expansion of European credit facilities made possible the vast expansion in trade, manufacturing and wealth after the Reformation. But initially the taking of interest had been seen as a way of selling something that should never be regarded as a commodity: time itself.
There remains something valid at the root of this intuition, which we can apply to the present situation. The products that were being traded and charged for in the derivatives marketplace were not real, in the way actual labor or tangible properties are real. Debts (mortgages, for example) are not real assets, and this becomes apparent when the original borrower defaults and there is no one – except perhaps the government – to pay the lender what he was unwisely expecting to receive.
It has long been assumed that economic growth, measured in terms of GDP or the amount of purchasing that is going on, can and should rise indefinitely as technology improves our capacity to exploit the natural resources of the planet (or, failing that, the solar system). There may be some truth in this, but there seems to be something unhealthy – something reminiscent of a biological cancer – in the idea of continual growth virtually for its own sake. This impression is strengthened when we remember that the growth in production is powered by growth in consumption.
Consumption is not an evil, but a necessity of life. Our economic system is based on and requires provision for basic human needs, the creation of new goods for making life richer and more pleasant, and the development of new markets. The danger is that this may lead to the systematic cultivation of desire for new things through manipulative advertising and planned obsolescence.
The encouragement to borrow beyond our means, the escalation of debt and greed that we have seen in the present century, are bound up with an attitude we call “consumerism”. We increasingly try to define our identity, or at least our standard of living, by what we acquire and consume. There is nothing wrong with wanting good-quality merchandise or a comfortable lifestyle. But there is a great deal wrong with getting bored with anything more than a year old and living in a way that harms others or the planet as a whole. In a sense the “sin” of living in that way is hardly individual, since responsibility for it is spread so widely. It is the economy that pressures people to live beyond their means by offering imprudent credit that is the main culprit here. So the answer is to encourage people to live more simply, to limit their borrowing, or to put a cap on their excess, whilst encouraging them to find peace of mind in other ways.
In medieval times, “sumptuary” laws which attempted to regulate habits of consumption, through restrictions on clothing, food, and luxury expenditures, were mostly ineffective, and were often used for social discrimination. Nevertheless, something like a sumptuary law may be needed to set limits to consumerism today. Just as there might be a case for limiting the amount by which the salary of a banker or corporate manager could exceed that of a worker in the same organization – without damaging the ambition to “get ahead” which gives energy to enterprise – so there might be a case for limiting the amount of anyone’s income that can be spent on luxury items, or (if that suggestion seems to threaten the sacred freedom to make our own mistakes) at least regulating more carefully and thoughtfully the quality and longevity of goods that are offered for sale in the market, as well as their real costs (including impact on the environment).
Neo-Distributism is not about a “return to the Middle Ages” or even about “three acres and a cow”, although there is a case to be made for self-sufficiency where possible, and for the revival of rural communities and agriculture in economies with overdeveloped white-collar sectors, or that have become dependent on foreign aid. What those in the tradition of Chesterton and Schumacher agree we need is more transparency and justice in the economy, both local and global. We need to root our economic life – as all of human culture has to be rooted – in the realities of nature, whether this means the natural environment and resources of our planet, or the nature of the human person as a creature capable of fulfillment through loving service and cooperation with others. Finally, we need to be able to learn from our mistakes and correct our course.
Chesterton often pointed out the error we make with our notions of progress. Humanity is not on a set of railway tracks, where the only options are to go forward or back, and faster or slower. We are freer than we think. We are not riding a set of tracks, we are exploring a new continent, a three-dimensional landscape. If we find our way barred in one direction, we can take another.