After the Disaster: Back to the Family and Localism

By Stratford Caldecott

Posted 12/11/08 at 7:49 AM


The rules of capitalism are being re-written. Banks are being nationalized. Governments are pouring money and incentives into the economic system. Interest rates are being lowered towards zero. Consumers are being asked to buy more in order to re-start the cycle of consumption-driven production, while Barak Obama gets on with saving the planet. Writing in the Guardian in August, Tory adviser Philip Blond explained succinctly that “the crisis of contemporary capitalism results from the congruence and culmination of three dominant trends: centralization, monopolization and speculation. Despite rightwing ideological claims, unregulated capital does not diffuse equitably among all market participants. The centralization of money and power is the foundation of monopoly, and the precondition for unrestrained speculation.”

The result is the present worldwide disaster which, viewed positively, creates an opportunity for radical change. The possibility of change begins with the dawning realization that we have been wrong not just about the economy, but about ourselves. The decisions and policies that have led to the crisis of capitalism were founded on a false view of human nature. We came to believe and act as though the smallest unit from which society can be composed is the individual. It was akin to the old physics: the belief that everything is made of atoms. We now know that everything is inter-related, but while science has moved on, economics has not caught up – until now.

The dominant social philosophy tells us that the basic unit of society is the individual, making choices that simply reflect the desires that are uppermost in him at the time. If this is true, two things happen. First, everything tends to be determined by individual desire and its manipulation. We end up with pure consumerism. Second, centralization (or corporatism) becomes inevitable, because a multitude of individuals can be too easily harnessed together. The result is a small group of successful individuals controlling the rest. That can as easily take the form of socialism as capitalism.

In the real world, the basic unit of society is not the individual but the family, meaning the set of relationships out of which the individual is born or into which he marries. It is from within this set of relationships that the individual exercises what freedom he has, whether it be moral, economic or political.

A shift in philosophical view away from individualism would change everything. If the basic unit of society is understood to be the family instead of the individual, people cannot so easily be detached from the relationships in which they are embedded, including the natural environment on which they are dependent. In other words, if we adopt this person- and family-centered view, truth would come before choice, reality before desire, responsibility before rights. That would make us less easy to manipulate, herd and enslave.

“Embedded” individuals are not morally any better than the free-floating individuals in a consumerist society, but their interests are different. One way they differ is by being likely to take a long-term view, because while an individual lives only briefly, a family or group lives potentially for ever. Consequently, to the extent that our affections and identity are bound up with such a group, we will seek sustainability (environmental as well as economic) rather than immediate advantage and self-indulgence.

As Philip Blond has also argued, the only way out of our present crisis is through a kind of decentralization that used to be called “distributism”. We need to turn things around and base them on the person, the family, and the locality. Others, such as the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture and Allan C. Carlson of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society have been promoting these ideas for years. Localism can take many forms: family-owned businesses, community-supported agriculture and Local Exchange Trading, co-operatives, credit unions, micro-finance initiatives like the Grameen Bank, guilds… In many cases there are already successful models of good practice available that could be applied on a larger scale. Whether anyone will take note of these examples before things get much worse is another question.

Today’s real radicals are not socialists who believe in big government stepping in to control everything in their name. Nor are they capitalists who still believe that economic competition alone, unregulated, will work in the interest of the common good. The real radicals want to turn everything upside down and base it around the family and the local community – on cooperation rather than competition, with government merely protecting the conditions under which small community can flourish.