Friday, November 22, 2013

Agrarianism is for the poor

Awhile ago, I read on a Catholic blog the comment that "luxuries" like Catholic agrarianism are the province of the rich.

At first it boggled my mind.  The whole point of agrarianism, as I see it, is that you shouldn't have to be rich.  Then I remembered the sort of agrarians and distributists I knew at Christendom.  They were aware of Catholic social teaching stating that property ownership ought to be as broad as possible, but there was quite a bit of fuzziness as to why.  I joined the Distributist Club for a bit, but we mostly muddled about trying to define property.  People seemed rather hazy as to what we were aiming for at all.  I don't remember the poor ever being mentioned.  And the more agrarian professors seemed mainly to be Luddites, griping over wristwatches and email, but it seemed clear enough to me that if they were in the employ of a college for their livelihood, they did not "own the means of production" in any of the senses we were talking about.

I recently read The Church and the Land, by Fr. Vincent McNabb. It's a fine bunch of diatribes, though not very specific on social programs.  (Belloc is better for that.)  The introduction was written by a favorite professor of mine, who taught me Latin and had the most acerbic wit I think I've ever encountered.  For all I loved his class, I felt his introduction focused on all the wrong things.  He points out that things have changed a lot since the early 20th century when McNabb wrote, and that some say distributism isn't needed anymore.

It is, he says, but not for the reasons I think of.  He talks about modern ease, comfort, commercialism, microwave dinners, and points out the loss of women's crafts, men's opportunity for physical toil, and family dinners.

Sure.  Fine.  I hate Wal-Mart too.  But I don't feel that women and men have to be bound into gender-specific jobs in order to be agrarian, and I don't think you have to be agrarian to have dinner together as a family.

The central tenet of distributism is this: as many people as possible should be able to own property -- defined usually as a farm or business.  Not that we should shun technology.  Not that women should cook and men should chop wood.  Not that families should have dinner together.  These things may be good or bad, but they have no real bearing on distributism as such.

And it seems to me talking about air-conditioning and SUV's and microwave dinners is ignoring the real problems of our world today -- the fact that many still are poor.  Poor not only in the sense of not having enough to eat or wear, but also in the sense of having very little control over their lives.  Knowing that a single pink slip stands between your family and ruin.  Knowing that if you are poor enough, you will have to go on welfare to feed your family.  Knowing that once you do, the government has you on a string just like your employer used to.

And that's only in this country.  The professor does mention, to his credit, that American prosperity is predicated on the exploitation of other countries.  We no longer have smoke-belching, unsafe factories, not because we have made the factories safe, but because we have moved them elsewhere.  All the poverty of England in the 19th century exists in Asia or Africa in the 21st.  Capitalism has generated wealth, but it has not eliminated poverty.  Neither have communism or socialism been able to do the same.

That poverty is inescapable without property ownership is clear from one example: the minimum wage.  The liberal view is this: A man can't live on $7 an hour at McDonalds.  We have to raise the minimum wage to $10.  To which the conservative responds: If we raised the minimum wage to $10, McDonalds still wouldn't pay the man $10.  It will fire him and buy an automatic burger-flipping machine.

The same in the third world.  The liberal cries, "This factory is cruel, it forces women and children to work in unsafe conditions for two dollars a day!"  The conservative responds, "But if you close the factory, they will be even worse off.  They wouldn't be working there if they didn't desperately need that two dollars a day."

They're both right, absolutely right, and that's the trouble.  When a man has nothing to live off of but a hope that a corporation will find him "worth" an amount large enough to pay for food and shelter, he is perpetually at risk for exploitation.  And if he refuses to work for the amount offered, he can't bargain the price up -- some other person more desperate will take the wages.  It's happening all over the market right now.  If you aren't willing to do work you're overqualified for, and put in extra hours for free, and accept a smaller paycheck and fewer benefits than you used to have -- well, there are people who are willing to do it, and they will have a job and you will have none.  No one has any bargaining power, because they all need to live.

But we are in this weak position because we are landless.  We cannot live without employment -- without convincing someone else we are "worth" a certain amount.  If we all had land, if we had a choice to live off that land or get a job in town, companies would have to offer a living wage if they wanted any workers at all.

A lot of capitalists are adamantly pro-business.  If the businesses prosper, we all will prosper.  Give businesses as many advantages as we can.  They don't seem to realize that if large corporations hold all the land, all the natural resources, all the capital, and all the machines, everyone else -- "the 99%," or the peasantry, as I like to call us -- have very little clout when it comes to opposing them.

Want proof?  Since 2008, what we call the recovery really only happened to the owners in society.  The income of the top 1% rebounded by 30% -- up to pre-recession levels.  The income of the rest of us rebounded by 1% -- less than inflation.  Of course there are many reasons for this, corporate bailouts being one.  But I also wonder if the recession wasn't just a convenient way to cut pay.  Since unemployment is high, people will work harder for less, and there was no reason to pass on the extra money to employees, so long as all the other employers were paying less too.  Certainly that has happened with John's job -- unless you have a competing job offer in hand (and here in the boonies, you're not likely to), you aren't going to get a raise.

Since the seventies, workers have produced 80% more in the same amount of time -- but wages have only risen 10%.  If minimum wage increased with higher productivity, it would be $21.72!  In other words, workers are working hard, producing lots of profit for their employers, but they are not sharing in the rewards.  In fact, it seems unlikely to me that they ever would share in the rewards, since workers don't set their salaries.  Those are worked out through supply and demand, so if you're unlucky enough to have a common skillset, your wages will be low no matter how hard you work.  It's only when you own your own business or farm that your increased productivity will result in a direct advantage to yourself.

Now, not everyone wants to work for themselves.  Some people would rather punch a clock and go home at the end of the day.  I don't think everyone needs to own property.  But the important thing is that property ownership (or, by extension, self-employment) should be within reach.  Prosperity can't be built on a shaky foundation of unstable agricultural policy -- and economic freedom doesn't exist where all the land is owned by a few.

This raises an even harder question: what to do when the land is owned by a few and property ownership is so difficult to obtain.  If I knew the answer to this, we'd own some already!  But my next post will give some thought to that topic.


Enbrethiliel said...


The other day, I was remarking to someone that the real problem with a minimum wage job was that you can't take one without admitting that you are dispensable, when it hit me that anyone earning a wage from someone else is admitting the same thing. It doesn't matter how many zeros there are behind the first numeral: the worker can be replaced--and more easily than he might thinks. Sometimes he just gets lucky and retires with the gold watch and accolades before someone else steps into his shoes . . . which were never even his shoes, just the pair he himself stepped into after the last wearer took them off.

It's enough to make me take Karl Marx more seriously--at least where the concept of alienation is concerned. Because he seems to have been right about that.

Belfry Bat said...

Most heretics have to say something true before they can really cause trouble: starting from reasonable premises, that lends credibility to absurd conclusions. But you can tell Marx has gone funny when he wants to free labourers not only from employers but from their own craft. His utopia isn't just one where nobody owns anything, but no-one is a painter and no-one is a mason, and no-one is a farmer. He wants everyone to be omnivorous hobbyists, or like silly rich people.

Sheila said...

I haven't actually read any Marx -- what is his solution? It seems to me Communism causes even more alienation than capitalism does.

Sometimes, I do admit communism seems tempting. But what always gets me is that it doesn't seem to account for the desire of human beings to work at something that is their own, for their own benefit. Capitalism also fails, when people don't get that opportunity. I think it's something intrinsic to human nature.

Belfry Bat said...

I've been trying awfully hard to remember where I got those Marx-y extracts... I also haven't read-as-in-read Marx-as-in-Marx... but the particular reference I'm recalling (badly) actually quoted passages at length, with citations and all that... I suppose the author there could have been lying! If it comes back to me, I'll get back to you, too.

I also don't recall his solution, but among the "problems" he wanted a solution to solve: that it is impossible for a person to be a painter one day and a baker the next, and a farmer the day after that. It sounds like hyperbole on how labourers get trapped in one dull job forever, only I'm quite sure Marx didn't mean to be hyperbolic on this point. It's easy enough to answer that neither is this a logical necessity nor does it impinge on political economy, but at most reflects the investment of self needed to be either a good baker or a good painter. Some people could manage them both in sufficient parallel, but it's not necessarily a good way to run a bakery or a painter's studio.

I can postively mention the (more technical) Ludwig von Mieses article "On the Impossibility of Calculation in Communist Economics" --- the way communism appropriates particular goods to The People leads to an economist's version of dividing by zero! But now we are getting far from Agrarianism.

John Locke (iirc, (and of all people to quote!)) said that, before revolution, an oppressed people should appeal to God; and I suppose it's worth another try!

Sheila said...

Hm, I don't see a problem with specialization in that sense. Of course it should be *possible* to change careers if you're unhappy -- and I can't imagine how it would not be -- but overall most people are going to settle into a trade and spend a lifetime getting better at it. Who do you want to hire, the plumber who's been plumbing for 30 years or the plumber who's been at it only a year after 29 other occupations? Much better to spend perhaps a few years in young adulthood "trying things" and the settle down to perfect your abilities at one thing.

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