Against Reactionary Distributism: Civilization Built Upon Technocracy

The Technocratic Island of Númenor

I woke this morning with the fog of a dream on my head, which I vaguely recall had something to do with restoring the guild-system to furnish artifacts once again actually worth having as furnishings. In my dream the item was a crucifix, no doubt inspired by the replica crucifix hanging behind me, which was modeled after a crucifix of a chapel in a Word War II warship, which itself was sunk in the sea so many years ago. Finding my way through the fog of that dream to my coffee pot, then to my rounds on the internet, I came across a delightful little blog, which featured the article by Ben Reinhard, “Amazon, Tolkien and the American Technocracy.” I do not know, but I am assuming that Reinhard is a devoted distributist, as indeed any sane and reasonable Catholic would be. But there are different flavors of distributism, nor do I claim to have theoretical knowledge of the economical complexities that bless or plague the word and the theory. But, as far as I can make out from the happy article, Reinhard seems to be an exponent of a reactionary kind of distributism.

What is demanded for in any theory, be it practical or speculative, is a certain modicum of consistency and what might just as well be called fair-play, and, as the practical theory under discussion at present deals with the notions touching (however disagreeably) on economics, we might say also fair-trade. The system cannot contradict itself, and when a contradiction arises based upon the essential structures of the system, you have a collapse of the system as a practicable theory. Take the case of what I shall call reactionary distributism, as in that which Reinhard seems to promote. In the article cited above, Dr. Reinhard (sorry for not mentioning he is a doctor and teacher at Franciscan University of Steubenville) speaks eloquently against Amazon for making everything so convenient and quickly available. He chides Bezos for his billions, and casts him as a kind of second Servant of Sauron, after Saruman, ready to make waste Middle Earth by his technocratic dictatorship. Now, there is something to say for how big business has become pretty much the only business, but there’s something that the adversaries of big business never allow, and that is, that big business tends to have standards that little businesses have almost all but forgotten or never had to begin with. This is because big business is no longer an isolated endeavor and enterprise of one or a few merchants wanting to make a buck. Big business has left the shop mentality behind and has become a culture, a people of its own. Big business has become, in no small measure and not equivocally, in its essentials the medieval guild which distributism so exalts to the stars.

The guild system of medieval Europe consisted in general outline, as groups of highly skilled tradesmen and merchants who were unified by their art-science, and ensured productive quality based upon rigorous standards of membership. In a word, the guild was a society and culture, much like the society and culture of Amazon, for instance. What the guild was precisely not, and what it actually stood against openly, was the independent workman with no credentials, who insisted on his own way, his own technique, his own name brand. The guild stood against and wanted to crush the (ever idealized in our contemporary American culture) Ma and Pop Shops, because these were a spot on the guild’s standards and undermined their profit margins, through selling inferior goods. This brings me back to the notion of contradictory systems.

The brand of distributism that Reinhard pushes is contradictory in this regard, that, not only is it reactionary but it conflates the bad with the good. As Reinhard says:

“There does not seem to be a universal solution; specific steps will vary according to the abilities and needs of a given individual or family. For some, this may mean downgrading to a ‘dumb’ phone; for others, sharply curtailing smartphone use. It could mean a commitment to never buy online what could be purchased in person. It could mean dumping Amazon altogether, along with all its works and pomps. More positively, resistance could mean engaging in activities that are natural but arduous: writing a poem, planting a garden, raising a family.”

We are to give up our smartphones in exchange for dumb phones, because technology is bad. Online shopping, which is convenient for the average healthy person, and absolutely critical for the cripple who can’t make it out his house without breaking something, is to be accounted a social blight, presumedly because, Amazon, along with any store you please, provides the service. This is simply unthinking and reactionary and contradictory. First, that dumb phone, it might surprise Dr. Reinhard, was an invention directly borne out of the minds of a thousand technologically inclined men who did not see it altogether evil to make communication evermore efficient and lucid. If Reinhard had it his way, we should stick to feather quill and rolled parchment and carrier pigeons, but that only betrays the point even further, for these things were just as much technology as smartphones are today. The only difference is, whereas ink pens and pigeons do not require a guild-like culture to make them, smartphones do.

I contend that one is able to write a poem, plant a garden, and raise a family with technology. Actually, I would argue that one is not able to write a poem, plant a garden or raise a family without technology. The problem with the reactionary distributism of Reinhard is that it is wholly based upon sentimentalism of degree and not on the cold distinctions of the essentials of things. Obviously one is not going to get far digging a garden without a plow, which is just a piece of ironmongery of the Iron Age. Obviously written language was just a technology devised by men to make man forget how to remember. If, taken to its ultimate conclusion, this brand of distributism which is purely reactionary instead of thoughtful and productive contradicts itself and blows up. Man is, as has ever been the case, an inventor, because he is made in the image of God, Who is the Creator. Invention is nothing other than creation from something. God creates out of nothing. Man creates out of something, which means he uses what already exists to create something new.

Now, if Reinhard’s criticism of Amazon and the American Technocracy were strictly confined to criticizing those things which perhaps never should have been invented, then I am all for such. But that is not upon which his criticism is based. Rather, it is because Amazon is big:

“For all its heat, however, The Rings of Power controversy has generated surprisingly little light, as neither the show’s critics nor its defenders have shown that they possess any clear sense of what Tolkien’s work is actually about. Or perhaps not so surprising. The simple truth is this: never has a society been so ill disposed to receive Tolkien’s vision as twenty-first-century America, and never has a company been so poorly qualified to safeguard Tolkien’s legacy as Amazon Studios. Quite the opposite is true: our modern technocratic society (and the trillion-dollar company that serves as its avatar) are very nearly the picture of Tolkienian evil.”

Now we come to the beginning which is also the end of the discussion–and the debate. The claim that Amazon Studios is not qualified to safeguard Tolkien’s legacy is very intellectually and historically clumsy. Reinhard says this, because Amazon represents, in his mind, everything that is bad about big business and our modern technocratic society. The only problem with his analysis is that the reverse and exact opposite is true. Because Amazon Studios is the exemplar of the avant-garde of cinematic arts, which itself requires and is indeed built upon the latest technologies of the technocratic society we happily live in, and because Amazon is an amazing (sorry for the pun) billion-dollar business of Bezos, who is a genius businessman, it is most, not least, qualified to put into mind-boggling high definition live-streaming cinema the fantastical world of Tolkien’s vision in every home across the world.

Let me just pause here for a moment and add an artistic critical review of what I believe is already the greatest achievement in the cinematic arts to-date, and there have only been three episodes aired. The Rings of Power is in vision, sound, and story development, a visual arts production by far surpassing anything I’ve ever experienced before. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings was probably the greatest before our age, but that is just the thing about living in a technocratic society. Things keep getting better. The Rings of Power makes The Lord of the Rings look almost amateurish if you can believe it. Of course, the new show has nothing on the acting of the movies, and that is a big blot, but technologically speaking, e.g., the sets, the special effects, the costumes, the sound, these qualities of the new series blow the old out of the water. But, back to my argument against this reactionary distributism threatening to throw us back into technology-free barbarism.

Should we have entrusted the great artistic task of communicating Tolkien’s literary legacy in the visual arts to the local Ma and Pop Shop, perhaps in the form of a church pageant play, with handmade costumes and that really down-to-earth feel of festivity and amateurism so often displayed at such open-air enterprises? By no means, nor would that be very medieval at all! Were the construction of the cathedrals entrusted to such Ma and Pop Shops? Where the construction of the cathedral organs? To whom were given the commissions of stone or paint of the Renaissance, and who funded them? The most skilled and the rich, that’s who, just as it is today. Reinhard is not reacting to modernism but to medievalism, where the rich and the most skilled ruled.

The problem with Reinhard’s form of distributism is that it is a democratic reaction to a non sequitur, because, if taken to its logical conclusion, Reinhard’s position ends in self-contradiction. The problem with democracy is that it elevates the fool over the wise and the mediocre over the marvelous. Democracy is inimical to invention and discovery, both in the practical arts as well as the theoretical sciences, because it exalts the Ma and Pop Shops who have neither the leisure or inclination to improve or progress in technology or science. For progress in technology as well as in knowledge a guild-like approach must be used, not a local, private, do-it-yourself enterprise. Every civilization which is worthy of the name had its great ages and inventions and was, at its heart, technocratic in industry, from the Roman aqueducts and roads, the technology of which was not surpassed for a thousand years, to the Medieval cathedral and printing press, to the Edisonian era in which artificial lighting literally changed the face of the earth, to the present Computer Age, against which Dr. Reinhard writes. But to be against technocracy is to be against man in his most noble attribute. It is to try to efface his image in the likeness of the Divine Creator.