We have been here before

Do Good Lives have to Cost the Earth, January 2008

This is a short version of the chapter of Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth, edited by Andrew Simms and Joe Smith (Constable, 2008), including contributions from Philip Pullman, Anita Roddick, David Cameron, Stephen Bayley, Tom Hodgkinson and many others.  See book details.

“ ‘I have been here before,’ I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s-parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer.”Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

I am a member of the generation that was brought up, probably more than any other, with the myth of progress.  As we grew up, all around us the urban motorways and the tower blocks were driving out the high streets, parks and terraced avenues.

They still are today, of course, but then the ideological purpose was stronger.  It was done in the name of ‘progress’, which we were constantly told it was impossible to obstruct.

We know a little better now.  We can see that the kind of ‘progress’ peddled by the establishment at that time meant little more than change: and many of those changes did not amount to real progress at all.  We could have stood in the way of them after all, and we might all have been better off if we had.  Certainly the planet would have been.

In the decades since, most professional disciplines have dispensed with the idea of inevitable progress.  Second-hand bookshops are littered with titles of forgotten historians peddling the idea, though it clings manfully to the discipline of economics, which assumes that more money inevitably means progress.  If the economy grows, economics assumes that it has progressed: change is progress.

This is nonsense of course.  But it means that, built into the basic DNA of economics is an assumption that now is better than then, and so influential have economists been over the past century, that we have come to share their assumptions.  We dismiss the medieval centuries as dark periods of brutality, lawlessness and poverty.  We shrink from their concepts of dentistry and thank goodness – probably correctly – that we live now.

But those who began to criticize industrial capitalism for the way it generated poverty, social collapse and environmental crisis, were also influenced by aspects of medieval economics which we now forget.  People like Ruskin, Morris or Hilaire Belloc particularly looked to the Middle Ages for their inspiration, and especially the twelfth century, the era of courtly love, troubadours and gothic cathedrals.  In fact, there is now some evidence for giving the twelfth century a second look.

When archaeologists unearth skeletons in London from that period, they are as tall, and therefore as well fed, as skeletons in any other period of history except our own.  In the case of women, they are even slightly taller.  They lived in a society that built some of the greatest works of art humanity is capable of: in three centuries, the limestone quarries of northern Europe produced more stone for gothic cathedrals than was used in all ancient Egypt to build the pyramids.  Certainly there was famine and poverty, but that was brought about by war.  For the most part, the hundreds of thousands of small independent farmers produced unprecedented and debt-free economic security – with more days off for the average farm worker than anything people now enjoy.

We may not want to catapult ourselves back there, but it is still worth wondering why – despite two centuries of economic growth – we seem unable to afford lives or cathedrals anything like those.  Victorian economists calculated that the average English peasant in 1485 needed to work fifteen weeks a year to earn the money they needed to survive for the year.  In 1564, it was forty weeks.  Now, of course, it is questionable whether we can manage to afford a reasonable life in Britain without two salaries all the year around. 

In the same way, we have become used to the idea of grinding poverty in the Middle Ages, we have also become used to the idea that it was a period of vicious laissez-faire, where any new entrepreneur could carve a swathe through any community or environmental obstacle.  It is true that the medieval period was one of massive expansion in trade.  In fact, global trade took until the eighteenth century to recover to the level it was before the Black Death.  But medieval economists were very aware of the limits to growth and the need to regulate their over-use.

The first royal commission on air pollution was set up by Edward I in 1285, and anyone who wanted to do any business – or make any feudal payment – was regulated by a mixture of rules, customs and reciprocal understandings designed to reduce conflict and defend the fish stocks.  A hen had to be accepted as payment,  must be accepted even if looks sickly, if could be scared into jumping the garden fence.  Millers were not allowed to let the river water rise so high behind their dam to prevent a bee standing on top and drinking without wetting its wings.

They sound quaint today, when we have the instruments to measure reciprocity exactly, but they worked.  If there were medieval concepts of the market or consumer society – and there were constant complaints about luxuries bought and debt incurred (charging interest was forbidden by the church) – they were subservient to ordinary morality.  If someone forced people to buy at a high price, that was regarded as a form of usury.  There was a ‘just price’ that should be charged, and if it was undercut or overtaken too far, then somebody was considered to be suffering.

It was naïve in a sense.  Later medieval monarchs, like Isabella of Castille, spent considerable energy investigating why gold was disappearing from her kingdom, having no knowledge of the basic principles of balance of payments.  Issues like inflation were regarded wholly as moral questions, rather than wholly economic ones as – rightly or wrongly – we do today.

We may not agree with any morality that understood economic processes so little.  But there something of that underlying medieval approach to economics – underpinned by morality – survives to this day.  When Coca-Cola built cold drinks dispensers that raised the price according to the prevailing temperature, there was an outcry.  The fair trade and ethical sector in the UK, which began so small in a generation ago, now stands at £29 billion a year – that’s bigger than alcohol or tobacco sales.  People increasingly want an ethical coherence in their lives.  It makes no sense to them, as perhaps it did a to their parents, to campaign against companies that despoil the environment or undermine lives, yet to have their pension money invested in Shell, British Nuclear Fuels or Tesco.

The new economy, with morality back at the heart, is more human than the classical economic idea – pedaled until recently – that really believed people always maximized the money values of every economic interaction.  We all know in our own lives that many other considerations apply.  And once we realize that money is a poor way of measuring progress, one that is literally unraveling the life systems of the earth, we begin to wonder how on earth morality and economics ever got divorced in the first place.  How did market economics, invented by moral philosopher Adam Smith, make the break?  How did we end up with the cult of the CEO ubermensch, for whom ordinary morality did not apply?

But in the intervening period since Smith, many of the fiercest critics of amoral economics, back to William Cobbett, John Ruskin and William Morris, have looked to the medieval period as inspiration.  It is, in fact, the heart of a great lost political tradition of agrarian radicalism.  Those who espoused it have been dismissed as unconnected cranks, throwbacks to a medieval arcadia which never existed.  They have been treated as romantic artists whose trespass into the political arena was an unfortunate blot on the lives of otherwise exemplary men of letters.  But seen in their true light, they are actually different expressions of the same tradition.  And more than that.  They are the tip of the iceberg, while below the surface, the great tradition is stirring again.

They seem to have fit indiscriminately into every other possible political tradition: Radicals (Cobbett), Tories (Ruskin, or so he said), Socialists (Morris), Liberals (Chesterton and Belloc), Greens (Schumacher), even out and out Blackshirts (Henry Williamson).  Yet what holds them together is remarkably consistent: bitter scepticism about the conventional values of wealth, power and money, and the delusions of money as a measure of value compared to the values of nature – and more than that: a spiritual sense of what good, creative human life might be.

Out of this tradition, eight decades ago, emerged a coherent critique of conventional economics that formed itself into a political campaign to shift the debate against giant corporations and big government.  They became known as the Distributists, and they were inspired by Hilaire Belloc’s 1912 book The Servile State, an influential diatribe against big business and Fabian collectivist policies, now rather inappropriately kept in print by obscure American libertarians, which wouldn’t have pleased him. 

Distributism knitted together the old Catholic social doctrine of Pope Leo XIII that was so close to Belloc’s heart, inspired originally by Ruskin via Cardinal Manning.  It mixed a generous dollop of land reforming Liberalism with unworldly Gandhian simplicity, borrowing the old slogan of Joseph Chamberlain and Jesse Collings from the 1880s, ‘three acres and a cow’.  At its heart was the redistribution of land and property so that everyone had some – on the ground that small enterprises, smallholdings and small units were the only basis for dignity, independence and liberty.

Belloc and his friend G. K. Chesterton and the Distributists were equally hostile to socialism and capitalism, and set out to prove they were the same thing, and that both tended towards slavery.  They were anti-industrial, anti-finance, anti-corporation, anti-bureaucrat, and most of all anti-giantism, either big bureaucracy or big business – the ‘Big Rot’ according to Belloc.  What it was actually for was a little hazier, but it included Jeffersonian solutions of workers’ co-operatives, smallholdings and land redistribution, and savings boosted by the state.  Capitalism is unable to satisfy human needs for stability, sufficiency and security, said Belloc, and is therefore only a phase.

One of their earliest campaigns was in support of the small London bus companies that were being driven out by the monopolistic London General Omnibus Company.  In response, they bought a series of Distributist buses, painted them red, green and blue and called them names like ‘William Morris’ – and took on the big company buses.  It didn’t work.

But while Belloc provided the ideological underpinning, Chesterton provided the rhetorical firepower.  His passionate denunciation of corporate power, of ‘clone town’ corporate shopping – not shops at all, he said, but “branches of the accountancy profession” – was based on a sense that neither corporate power nor consumerism could provide for people’s material or spiritual needs, and that both implied a mechanical tyranny that was increasingly wielded over people as the monopolies took hold.

He claimed he had only twice been censored by newspaper editors and once it had been for criticising big shops – one of those things you were no longer allowed to say.  “I think the big shop is a bad shop,” he wrote in An Outline of Sanity, “I think it bad not only in a moral but a mercantile sense; that is, I think shopping there is not only a bad action but a bad bargain.  I think the monster emporium is not only vulgar and insolent, but incompetent and uncomfortable; and I deny that its large organisation is efficient.”     

Chesterton and Belloc thundered from their respective platforms, or in the pages of Chesterton’s newspaper G. K’s Weekly, or debated with people Fabians like Shaw and Wells.  But the real vulnerability about Distributism was that it lacked practical policy solutions.  “I think we can explain how to make a small shop or a small farm a common feature of our society better than Matthew Arnold explained how to make the State the organ of Our Best Self,” wrote Chesterton, but he in fact couldn’t.  The whole prospect seemed impossible, and the very tone of both men was melancholic, as if the tidal wave of giantism would inevitably sweep them away: “Do anything, however small,” urged Chesterton in 1926.  “Save one out of a hundred shops.  Save one croft out of a hundred crofts.  Keep one door open out of a hundred doors; for so long as one door is open, we are not in prison.”


Distributism fizzled out after the Second World War.  Their land schemes of the 1940s failed and the Distributist League was wound up in the 1950s.  There have been Distributist gestures from governments since then (Mrs Thatcher’s sale of council houses, for example), but little more.  Its proponents were disappointed that those who had taken it to heart most were not the urban poor, but craftsmen like Eric Gill or journalists like Beachcomber.   Once Chesterton had joined Belloc in the Roman Catholic church, then Distributists were increasingly regarded as the political wing of Catholicism.  Today they are all but forgotten, and those who worry about such things are liable to remind anyone mentioning them that Belloc was an admirer of Franco’s and that Chesterton’s vitriol for the financial services industry looked worryingly like anti-semitism.


These are important criticisms, and there is a long history of radical movements in this tradition shifting dangerously to the right once they were worn out (the American Populist Party became white supremacists).  But in the defence of Belloc and Chesterton, both men were among the first to recognise Hitler for what he was and to condemn his anti-semitic policies from the outset.


The point is that, a mere eighty years ago, there was a pioneering group of campaigners who saw what we now see – that giant corporations and giant agencies tend to transform their clients and customers into semi-slaves, prefer their behaviour to be standardised and reward and punish them accordingly.  That capitalism and socialism both tend likewise towards tyranny. That the muddle between money and well-being is not just an awkward error but is a threat to human life.  Who saw also that the divorce between economics and ethics, and between human beings and the land, is both disabling and corrupting, and dangerous.


We may not recognise their solution of a return to agriculture, and the distribution of small-scale property and land.  We may not admire their language about the promotion of a new peasantry.  But we can see where they came from.


What we have now, which they could not see, is the glimmers of a revival of sanity.  The revival of allotments are testament to people’s frustration with supermarket standardisation, and the demand for fresh, local food.  For the first time since the war, the seed companies report selling more vegetable seeds and than flower seeds.  People campaign against supermarkets, and ethical investment now edges towards £5 billion in the UK alone.


In short, something is in the air.  We no longer quite accept the mechanical and reductionist trappings of consumerism.  We are some way from a revolt against it, but the first winds of the storm are blowing.


We also have some practical tools which the Distributists lacked.  We can analyse local money flows, to prove that supermarket expansion, cheap flights and motorway construction are precisely the reverse of what is claimed for them: they are, in fact, impoverishing.  We have concepts like local currencies, green taxation and fair trade, and they are popular and increasingly so.


Belloc’s ‘Ha’nacker Mill’, one of his most famous poems, is a vision of England in ruins, a microcosm of agrarian and moral collapse.  It ends: 


“Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done.


Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers,


And never a ploughman under the sun.


Never a ploughman.  Never a one.”


But there is no longer any need to be quite so despairing.  The forces conspiring to prevent us living good lives that don’t cost the earth are hugely powerful.  The peril that humanity faces, and the planet we live on, is urgent and dire.  The concept of progress remains stolen from us and is wielded by the other side.  But we are now waking up, and there is a long and honourable tradition before our time which we can draw on – even learn from.  We don’t have to work out everything afresh, and we are not alone.


David Boyle is a fellow of the New Economics Foundation, the author of Blondel’s Song: The imprisonment and ransom of Richard the Lionheart (Penguin), and of a number of books about the future, including Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life (HarperCollins).


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