The Familiar Society

In a recent post on the justice of the property tax, I said that I was not interested so much to discuss that question as something else. That something is the vision of a familiarly ordered society, which suddenly opened itself to me as I pondered the modern property tax and its origins in corvée labor. I happened to read at that time, “coincidentally” – which is to say, synchronistically, or as we would here put it, providentially – an interview with Michael Hudson in which he revealed that recent archeological research seems to indicate that the pyramids and other ancient public works were built, not with coerced or slave labor, but by compensated freemen. Recently translated accounting records from these projects reveal that they enjoyed a high protein diet and vast quantities of beer. Periods of intense construction activity appear to have been coordinated and motivated by great religious festivals, featuring lots of sacrifices and feasting, that would have attracted people from far and wide. Involvement in this labor appears then to have been, not coerced, but voluntarily rendered, and motivated by strong positive emotions, which we might perhaps recognize as echoed in the intense patriotic fervor that prompted our forefathers to sign up in eager millions for the meat grinders of the 20th Century World Wars.

We may take this as an indication that a truly familiar society such as I discussed in the previous post would be radically different in character from the only sort of society any of us have ever known. I have not even begun to count all the ways it would be different; indeed, I feel I barely know how to think about what such a society would be like.

But it seems to me that the familiar society must be still remembered from earlier stages in our own history. I take it as indicative that many of the basic – and basest – terms of the financial arts have also, and more anciently, meanings that express aspects of our relations to each other as familiars rather than as mere strange foreign adversarial arms length counterparties: bond, stock, obligation, credit, debt (doubt), interest, entrepreneur, capital, contract, agreement, estate, duty, custom, fee, corporation, company, partner, proprietor, deal, due, finance, economics, tender, bid, ask, pay, rent, wage, salary – all carry some connotation of the intimate negotiations and mutual obligations of intra-familial life (all urged upon us by emotions of love) and of the felt will to do each other good, bounded by what is right. Only thus, it seems to me, could they carry still any social weight, that motivates us to act so as to meet the terms of our transactions with each other even now in our society of inimical strangers. When we owe a debt or duty, we feel an obligation to repay it. All but the scoundrels and sociopaths among us want to honor our debts. How could this be, unless there were in our abstract bloodless debts and duties still some urgent tincture of our ancient tribal pieties?

Frederick Turner (to whose Shakespeare’s 21st Century Economics I owe that insight about our terms of finance, accounting and economics) has argued that capitalism works better than its alternatives because even today – i.e., even as alienated from its roots, and thus attenuated in its affections – it more closely accords with the basic, inbuilt structure of human relations influencing and expressed in every aspect of our bodily careers: the family, and all its ramifications. That is interesting enough. But what it indicates to me now is that societies in general work well – work at all – only to the extent that in any of their operations they agree with human nature. Obviously, trivially true – how could it be otherwise? – but usually ignored these last 300 years. We keep trying to fix things, when really we should stop; for, our nature left to its own devices generates the familiar society without any top-down interventions or conscious policy deliberations, but rather organically, as arising from it along with our physiology, language, and so forth. Sex and infancy generate the family; from the family, the familiar society follows. The familiar society is then the default social arrangement for human beings. Only as human nature is perverted among men, and by them, do societies defect from that familiar default. To the extent that they do, they do worse than they might, ceteris paribus.

The excessive wickedness of modern finance capitalism, then, is not the effect of the market as such, but rather of its defects as now implemented; and these may be traced at root to our defection from a due recognition of our familiar relations, and our failure to honor our familiar obligations to each other. The general retreat from hierarchy and authority is but a symptom of this defection.

Authority must be understood as deriving from, and fitted to, the order of things – we must see it as ultimately somehow blessed from on high – if we are to recognize it as authoritative in the first place, or give it due credit (those words again). The property tax seems unjust to us because we don’t see how our governors deserve it – they certainly don’t earn it! We feel we owe them none of that loyalty that motivated the laborers who built the pyramids. We feel that we owe them no duty. They are strangers – indeed enemies, most likely.

The modern defection from familiar hierarchy and its duties and obligations and privileges stems in turn from the repudiation of the patrimonial cult, which once served to ground and justify patriarchal authorities at every level. We have no king, who is the minister of the Divine Law, there being under the modern conceit no such thing as Law Divinely ordained; so, we have no subsidiary lords of any sort, no worthy lords anywhere. We are each therefore ultimately alone. Thus all alienated, nothing we render to each other can be felt as just and properly due unless it be compensated formally under an immaculate accounting of costs and benefits. But all our merely creaturely calculations are inveterately maculate; so society is endemically unjust, and everywhere seethes with resentment. Thus is even the sweet and holy marriage bed profaned with considerations of tit for tat, and its proper total donations ruined by adversarial prophylactic deal-making, whether explicit or sub rosa; of which, the pre-nuptial agreement and the divorce are the formal exemplifications.

In a familiar society we would not worry so much about being cheated by our counterparties. It is an extraordinary knave who would defraud his own kith and kin. But where human relations are all contests among alien adversaries, the Marxian analysis that holds them all to be nothing more than relations of domination determined by differentials of power – that, i.e., takes them all to be sorts of robbery – is simply true. It is not gainsayed by such vestiges of mutual respect, friendship, or even loyalty to some higher purpose as may still operate among us. In an unfamiliar society, no sort of transaction can be approached in complete trust.

In the unfamiliar, alienated society, any success generates resentment, and all transactions are somewhat tweaked by suspicion.

But were we able to treat each other honestly as relatives – i.e., without exertion of the will in service of an abstract bloodless ideal of the brotherhood of man – the basic nature of the game we play with each other would change from that of war to that of sport. We would then of course still disagree, as men do. But our disagreements would be as those between brothers inextricably and ontologically linked together, who cannot but play as it were for the same team, and whose fortunes are willy nilly intertwined. We would still compete, as men do. But we would all rejoice together at each other’s greatest feats, as each being of ours, and thus in some sense our own. The whole village joins in the adventures of the high school football team. No one in town feels cheated or shortchanged on account of the young quarterback’s prowess. On the contrary, everyone rejoices in it, and feels his own life thereby enlarged. In the familiar society, all (honest) success generates general satisfaction. When our laird does well, so do we; and vice versa. The honor and glory of him who is of ours is in some degree our own.

Again, a familiar society would not fix everything, or even most things. Life is going to be fraught, no matter how we arrange it. But I believe it would be better than the fundamentally inimical sort of society we have been setting up for the last 500 years or so, at least at the margin. It’s just nicer to be among friendly relatives, than not.

There are all sorts of things that would have to change in order for us to enjoy a familiar society again. Not least, we would need to return to a more settled life, rooted more to a particular place and the people who live there. There is only one way this will happen: people must want it more than they want the vagrancy, loneliness and alienation of our current way of life. But as almost everyone, of every political persuasion, seems to realize, our current way of life is neither very satisfactory, nor sustainable. That’s why people are swayed by different persuasions about how to arrange things so as to promote a way of life that is sustainable, and that is also good. That social reform – i.e., the discourse of politics – is such a hot topic tells us that we are all quite alive to a desperate need for social reform. Things have to change, and they will change. The only questions are how, and at what cost in human suffering.

So we may hope that the reason people want things to change is that they want the sorts of goods that only a familiar society can furnish, and that when push comes to shove they will be willing to suffer the costs of obtaining them.

 

67 thoughts on “The Familiar Society

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  4. @Kristor – I think you are onto something very important here.

    My own notions are converging towards much the same conclusion, but working from different premises – which is usually a sign of something valid.

    • I’ll be interested to see how you converge to something similar.

      I am myself after fifty years of understanding society – and engaging in it – as a contest of adversaries able so far to glimpse the familiar society but dimly. As I said, I am not altogether sure how to think about it yet. It seems quite strange, yet I find that I somehow recognize it. It feels like home, in rather the same way that the Shire and Narnia under Caspian felt like home. This, even though I have never been to the Shire, or Narnia, or to a familiar society.

    • Definitely onto something. Here are some initial and somewhat random thoughts.

      The economic model in Acts is a fairly small community having all things in common (Acts 2:44). In LDS history, the counterpart is the United Order. Christian Europe had its numerous and often powerful abbeys. Rod Dreher talks about the Benedict Option to preserve Christianity from modern onslaughts. See http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/christianity-collapse-catholicism-benedict-option/

      The Confucian model of society is clearly familial (and hence familiar) with corresponding lifetime duties and obligations. The Israelite economy retained strong familial aspects, in theory (Lev. 23:13) and in common practice (e.g. Luke 15:11-12).

      In contrast, at my son’s firm (a major oil company) his boss once said, “Every two weeks we’re even. You work, we pay you. We’re even.” That is the way it is in modern corporate America. Lifetime loyalty to a firm died decades ago. See also http://dilbert.com/strip/1993-03-03 and http://dilbert.com/strip/1997-11-09

      The closest thing to an enduring communal economy for most Americans is the family. A corporation has things in common, but the size of the corporation often distorts any familial and familiar aspects, and the purpose of most corporations is merely to return an investment to the shareholders.

      My friend Jennifer Morse recommends Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element by John D. Mueller. See http://familyinamerica.org/journals/summer-2010/how-team-redeems-modern-economics/#.VXY362RViko

      “Aristotle argued that every community follows some principle in distributing its common goods, some principle that defines what the Greek philosopher considers ‘distributive justice.’ Augustine expanded this theory by adding to it a theory of ‘personal distribution.’ Each person decides ‘to whom’ or ‘for whom’ he is distributing his goods. Humans always act with some person in mind, even if it is only the actor himself. We give to people we love; we sell to or exchange with people we don’t.

      [Adam] Smith’s famous declaration about the butcher and the baker acting solely out of self-interest eliminates Augustine’s theory of distribution. Smith’s contention that everything is done out of some redefined self-interest collapses a real and valuable distinction between gifts and exchanges. Mueller claims that Augustine’s theory of distribution could have shown why the butcher and the baker give their wares to their own children, and sell them to everyone else.”

      I would also note the deep moral and religious overtones behind the modern German financial vocabulary.

      Gläubiger = creditor, but also believer
      Schlud = debt, but also guilt or blame

      Modern economic society has lost touch with its roots. The ancient city was build around a temple, the modern city around a marketplace.

      • Ita, that’s neither a charitable response to a helpful comment, nor is it quite fair. If it is wrong per se for ecclesial institutions to own or operate business enterprises, then essentially all ecclesial institutions are thus wrong: e.g., Notre Dame University, Trappist brewers, the Vatican Bank, Cluny, cathedral gift shops, bookstores run by monastic orders, the Templars, Mystic Monk Coffee, the Temple money changers (essential to the ritual purity of the sacrificial offerings), choirs selling recordings, Benedict XVI selling his books, parish endowments, on and on and on.

        The notion that all of this activity is irredeemably and intrinsically wicked or unclean is incredible. I therefore conclude that business per se is not ritually unclean, any more than the human body per se is ritually unclean.

        By that same token, Leo, I conclude that it is not eo ipso problematic for the city to be built around a market – how could it be otherwise, since ease of exchange is one of the main reasons to have a city in the first place? – so long as it and its markets are built around a temple.

      • Kristor,

        Glad to see you policing somebody’s comments for lack of charity.

        Notre Dame University…Vatican Bank Do you really want to cite these institutions as positive examples of the Church’s interaction with the world? Are you likening Trappist brewers with a shopping mall, where no doubt many of the products sold therein are manufactured by slave labor in the Third World, or in Communist China?

        The notion that all of this activity is irredeemably and intrinsically wicked or unclean is incredible. I therefore conclude that business per se is not ritually unclean, any more than the human body per se is ritually unclean.

        My comment really wasn’t so much directed at whether commerce is intrinsically wicked as it was with corporationization of American religion. I also found Leo’s overarching point out of sync with his cultural milieu the same one he has pushed on here at times.

        See e.g. http://www.amazon.com/One-Nation-Under-God-Corporate/dp/0465049494

      • I was not policing your comment, any more than you were policing Leo’s comment. I was just responding to it. If I had been policing your comment, I’d have rewritten it. It just seemed to me that it was gratuitously, bootlessly snarky, intended only to injure and bring an otherwise friendly exchange to a speedy angry halt.

        Notre Dame University … Vatican Bank Do you really want to cite these institutions as positive examples of the Church’s interaction with the world?

        No, I mean to cite them as beams we Catholics ought first to pluck out of our own eyes before … well, before almost anything other than eliminating liturgical dance. My point was only that church and business are not intrinsically inimical, and that it is not fair for us Catholics to scorn the Mormon Church for owning a shopping mall when the Catholic Church owns the Vatican Bank (whether the mall and the Bank happen to be wicked, either one, or not).

        Corporatization of religion is nothing new: Cluny and the Templars were each in turn among the largest, wealthiest, most powerful organizations – of any sort – in the West. This emphatically does not entail that they were basically wicked, even though they were almost certain to have done wicked things from time to time. So while we ought to pluck out the Vatican Bank and Notre Dame, we should remember that there can be a Catholic university and a Catholic bank that are not wholly depraved. It’s the wickedness of business that needs purging, not business as such; just as the spots of the body are to be washed away, and not the body as such.

        I also found Leo’s overarching point out of sync with his cultural milieu, the same one he has pushed on here at times.

        Just say so, then, and in just that way, without condescension, remembering that his milieu is ours, and that we here are all struggling to see through it, and get out of it. Your friendly criticism – and Leo’s – of my statements have helped me see, and get out (if only by prompting me to think things through more carefully). So help Leo, and what is more, consider that he might be able likewise to help you in return, mirabile dictu.

      • “business per se is not ritually unclean”
        Ritual uncleanness went out with the Old Covenant. But as medievals argued, there is a certain taint associated with commerce. It is an activity directed to personal gain, something that is not commendable to the ancients and medievals.
        Commerce became morally unobjectionable only with the transvaluation of all values in 18C.

      • Call it taint or ritual uncleanness, call it vice or wickedness, call it what you will.

        All work is commerce – literally (Mercury being god both of markets and of the languages by which they are mediated), “colloquy,” an exchange of information, and so of value – with the rest of reality, aimed at the realization of value. Some is wrongly aimed, some poorly done. This taints work, as encumbering it with hazards, but does not ruin work as such and altogether. If it did, there would be no such thing.

      • “Taint” is very precisely used here. “Wickedness” or “vice” would be totally misleading.

      • If “taint” did not connote evil of some sort, there would be nothing wrong with it, and no one would even notice it. You say that the medievals thought commerce was tainted with self-interest. If this is not to say that commerce is a little bit wicked, what the heck is the problem with having that taint?

      • Kristor,

        Thank you for your kind defense. I hope you will forgive a lengthy reply as it not only addresses the criticism, but also touches on economic concerns relevant to your original post, which raises really important issues.

        There is nothing intrinsically unclean about a sound and honest marketplace. My father made an honest living in the department store trade including at times in shopping malls. Not only can a market can be an asset to society, and it is hard to imagine an economically and technologically advanced society without some sort of marketplace.

        In the 19th Century the Latter-day Saints created mercantile co-ops as part of entire Church-directed colonial economies. See http://www.amazon.com/Great-Basin-Kingdom-Latter-day-1830-1900/dp/0252072839. These over time evolved (and were encouraged to evolve by outside pressure) into typical private enterprises. Left to our own devices, Latter-day Saints preferred quite a different economic model. Forced to accept living in Protestant corporate America and accused of being anti-American back in the day, we have tried to be industrious and productive citizens and good stewards of whatever lands we are in, while reserving a sacred core that is universal rather than merely American and secular, trying (imperfectly no doubt) to be in the world, not of it, as the saying goes.

        Why would the LDS invest in an attractively designed and landscaped, pedestrian-friendly, residential, office, and retail complex constructed during the recession next to its iconic temple? The compelling reason is to ensure that downtown Salt Lake City remains safe and economically viable rather than fall victim to urban blight, a common scourge of American cities with associated squalor, poverty, disreputable elements, graffiti, and crime. “The church’s primary notion is to protect the Temple Square and the headquarters of the church. That’s first and foremost. This development would not have been done just on a financial basis,” according to Mark Gibbons, president of the church’s development arm City Creek Reserve. “This church gave birth to this city, it wasn’t the other way around. And, just like any good parent, we are interested in the vitality of this city,” according to Presiding Bishop H. David Burton. Something similar is being done in Ogden, Utah, which also has a temple. The Church “believed in the revitalization of downtown Ogden before Ogden believed,” accordingly to Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey. “They get it. Their plans are excellent — it’s all mixed use. It’s helped downtown immensely. Downtown Ogden 11 years ago was blighted, empty and sometimes unsafe. And that’s not the case anymore.” http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/home/51497060-76/church-temple-downtown-lake.html.csp

        The other LDS temples (146 operating temples world-wide with 13 more under construction and 14 announced) are in a variety of settings, some urban, some suburban, some small town. Where and as possible, the Church undertakes reasonable efforts to keep the neighborhoods safe, attractive, and viable, as it should. This is more easily done where we are numerous and is more difficult where we are not. The temples themselves and their grounds are sacred space that we will not spare to defend when the matter is within our power. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTNNTNruOjs, etc.

        Not every town and city will have an LDS temple, just as not every city will have a Catholic cathedral. My point about the “city” was, of course, a metaphor. An individual will ultimately have to decide if he wishes to organize his life around God or Mammon. So ultimately will a society.

      • Kristor,

        While I do not think all economic activity is “intrinsically wicked” I think our tradition’s provides some challenging teachings to us moderns. As St. Thomas taught:

        Hence trading, considered in itself, has a certain debasement attaching thereto, in so far as, by its very nature, it does not imply a virtuous or necessary end. Nevertheless gain which is the end of trading, though not implying, by its nature, anything virtuous or necessary, does not, in itself, connote anything sinful or contrary to virtue: wherefore nothing prevents gain from being directed to some necessary or even virtuous end, and thus trading becomes lawful. Thus, for instance, a man may intend the moderate gain which he seeks to acquire by trading for the upkeep of his household, or for the assistance of the needy: or again, a man may take to trade for some public advantage, for instance, lest his country lack the necessaries of life, and seek gain, not as an end, but as payment for his labor

        Summa Theologica Second Part of the Second Part Question 77 Article 4

        So while we agree with Aquinas that the market it is not inherently evil there still remains a “certain debasement.” The further one delves into the fathers the more hostile the tradition gets. Moderns see the market as evil either. The problem is the precise opposite.

        As for Clear Creek, see-http://www.businessweek.com/printer/articles/60992-how-the-mormons-make-money

        Quote- We look to not only the spiritual but also the temporal, and we believe that a person who is impoverished temporally cannot blossom spiritually

        Well, what a surprise, Mormonism flips traditional Christianity on its head.

        When it came time to cut the mall’s flouncy pink ribbon, Monson, flanked by Utah dignitaries, cheered, “One, two, three—let’s go shopping!

        This is American “traditionalism.”

      • While I tremble to quibble with the Angelic Doctor, I cannot but notice that his argument for a certain debasement of commerce applies with equal force to human activity of any sort. Any sort of human act may be directed to ends vicious, virtuous, or somewhere in between; so that if commerce be somewhat debased, so is anything else. Given the Fall, this should hardly surprise us.

      • Aquinas seems to be saying that trade is directed to *gain* which is *neutral* according to him because it can be further directed to other ends, virtuous or not. In the neutrality of gain he sees *certain debasement* because at least some other activities are *in themselves* directed to virtuous or necessary ends. Now the question is if there are any such activities or, as you seem to suggest, all are neutral.

        I don’t know what Aquinas further says about it but I think, for example, that food production has such necessary end — the food is necessary for sustaining one’s life though eating too much can lead to disease and death.

      • Farming is a good counterexample. The farmer raises more food than he needs to sustain himself and his family. He does his best to generate a surplus from his lands, which he may then trade with other men for other sorts of goods. I.e., his farming is directed (at least in part) to gain. By Aquinas’ argument, to the extent that the farmer directs his farming to gain, it suffers from a certain debasement.

        By that argument, *any* activity directed to the addition of value – aimed, that is to say, at coming out of the activity in a better situation than one came into it – is debased.

        This seems a perverse result.

      • Not *any* activity, only that made for the sake of gain. I don’t think he means “gain” in a broad sense, that is as coming out of any activity in a better situation. Perhaps in his eyes the gain (anything that exceeds requirements of sustaining family, upkeeping household, status etc.) is dubious or suspect until it is used certain way.

      • The problem is that all activity is undertaken for the sake of some gain or other (counting “avoiding a loss one would otherwise suffer” as a species of gain). Any such gain represents an increase of ontological power over what would otherwise have been available. Considering the entire situation, such gain represents a profit, and an implicit storage of powerful value for future use (as may be seen from the literal meaning of “profit:” pro, “for” + fit, “do”).

        Earning just enough to fill the belly and keep a roof overhead is a gain over the alternative of not earning that much. Giving away one’s whole wealth in exchange for admission to the monastic life is a gain, too; no one would ever do it if he didn’t think he’d be better off, all things considered, by so doing.

        Now if Thomas were to say that we cannot evaluate the moral status of any sort of gain until we see how virtuously it is deployed, then I would agree: the character of an act is not solely a function of its value to the agent, but involves also its value to his world. This seems obviously true.

        But the result is then that gain as such, of any sort, being only potentially good, suffers from that certain debasement Aquinas notices in profitable trade. And this means that trade undertaken for gain is not uniquely debased.

        Perhaps we could say then simply that the gain of profitable commerce provides us a particularly clear example of the moral ambiguity of any acts taken in isolation, which can be resolved to clarity only in view of their meanings for the whole of history under the aspect of eternity.

      • I am aware that it can be said that any activity is directed to some gain or other. This is how modern economists tend to view things. It might or might not be true but I am trying to understand why Aquinas overlooked such obvious observation.

        He didn’t. Instead he says that one acts for one’s own *good*, hence, gain and good are not the same thing for him. And not any acting for one’s own good is a trading actvity (though people usually go through some cost/benefit calculation) so maybe he wouldn’t say that giving away all wealth in order to become a monk is a trade directed to gain. Becoming monk is virtuous act as such and directed to good (actually and not merely potentionally — the wealth /or the gain/ directed to virtuous end).

        I think his view of trade is much narrower. He simply means that trading is buying for less and selling for more and gain is what remains in one’s pocket after the transaction is done. This narrow meaning of gain is an end the trade is directed to and it can easily become the sole end of men engaged in trading which is probably why he talks about debasement — the hierarchy of good is turned upside down. Or perhaps because of time and effort spent on achieving something that is not immediately virtuous or necessary.

      • … [profit] can easily become the sole end of men engaged in trading …

        That’s avarice. It is a defect of the trader, and not of trade as such. And the nisus toward any sort of good is likewise vulnerable to corruption and error. E.g.: avarice:profit::gluttony:food. The properly ordered trader seeks profit for the sake, not of profit, but for the sake of what he might do with the profit, that he values as good: build his enterprise, endow his heirs or beneficiaries, give to charity or the church, strengthen or reform his polis, and so forth. To seek profit only for profit is to mistake means for ends, terms for their termini.

      • Hi Leo

        Every two weeks we’re even. You work, we pay you. We’re even.

        It is useful to learn the concepts of transactional vs. relational attitudes here:

        Transactional: doing something for the other person creates a debt, and that debt should be paid as soon as possible in order to be even and thus to be able to maintain the freedom to end the cooperation at a whim. Every transaction has its own identifiable payment.

        Relational: people mutually do things for each other, but don’t keep accounting and do not see an action as directly matchable with another action as a payment. Rather, they evaluate the the situation on the basis of the relationship as a whole: if I keep paying this, and keep getting that, is that overally a good deal for me? There is an expectation of loyalty unless someone breaks a promise, because usually if a relationship as a whole was beneficial in the beginning it will keep being so.

        Good article: http://blogs.darden.virginia.edu/deansblog/2008/01/transactional-versus-relational/

        For researchers of familiarity, transactional vs relational should be another go-to term.

  5. Very good, this seems to encapsulate, at the local level, the ‘organic state’. A very idealized form of this I read about recently was the Romania peasant/boyar relationship prior to the late 1800s. Rather than the Marxian portrait of a downtrodden underclass who hated their tyrannical lords, the reality in Romania was there was great love and camaraderie among the people and the various lords who ruled over them, who were often of blood relation.

    As written in For My Legionaries:

    Help was always to be found at the court, as our homes were called, where the church of the village was also to be found. Every newly married couple received a pair of oxen and a plough. Marriages and christenings, at which the boyars often played the part of godfather and godmother, created a real spiritual relationship between the landlord and the villagers… The friendly and familiar relations between the peasants and the boyars are borne out by Rumanian folklore.

    I think it bears adding that the Patriarchal structure is necessary for this kind of familiar society. Male headship naturally reinforces hierarchy in the broader sense.

    • You remind me of one of the favorite books of my childhood, Kate Seredy’s The Good Master, about a Hungarian boyar and the extended family of his estate circa the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. It is a sort of idyll. I loved the good, wise, brave master with the same sort of love Seredy saw his people had for him.

      The book – and the patriarchal, familial order it limns – ends with the good master going off to serve his own master in the Great War.

    • I have a book on my reading list desribing social, economic and political problems of countryside in Austria-Hungary in 19th century. The book is from 1889. In short the peasantry was under great pressure due to cheap grain import (mostly from the US and Canada) but mainly due to debt. While in earlier centuries the land could not be alienated even under debt, in 19th century it became possible and many peasants had to abandon their land due to debt they could not pay. The author also argues how important a relatively free peasant (which means under king’s protection against exaggerated pressure from the local landlord and living on an inalienable piece of land) is for the health of the state. The arrangement worked quite well in earlier centuries.

      I think it is more or less in accordance with Kristor’s thoughts.

      Reading Mark’s Rumanian story I’d like to share some old pictures I recently discovered to make it more visual:

      http://www.velikepoledne.wbs.cz/Cechy.html

      http://www.velikepoledne.wbs.cz/Polsko-Rumunsko_-Madarsko-apod.html

      It’s a pity that less and less people wear these local costumes telling everyone: *this is us from this place*. These people are somehow more real. Imagine also what a sight the Austrian Imperial Army had to be with all those soldiers from different regions of the Empire wearing strange local uniforms and weapons…

      • Wonderful pictures! The Romanian peasantry I believe were one of the last to actually give up their traditional dress. They held onto it all the way up until the Communist takeover, even during the interwar period where they were sneered at by the cosmopolitan elite and university professors (many of whom were not actually Romanian) for being relics of the past. They really did represent the purity of the once mighty Christian Occident..

    • Patriarchs have to be able to generate enough economic surplus to support more than one nuclear family, though. Marx had all kinds of issues, but his analysis of the problems that industrialization brings is still one that conservatives refuse to meet seriously even when the fallout is all around them.

      • Wars are won with wealth and technology. Lack of it might be a disadvantage for patriarchal society in the world like this.

      • You bring up a dilemma posed by many Reactionaries. However, being a Prophetic Catastrophist, I don’t actually think the Patriarchal order will be restored while the current technological and capitalistic world as we know it exists. I view the rise of the Reactionary State as following logically from the current world’s implosion.

  6. “Sex and infancy generate the family; from the family, the familiar society follows. The familiar society is then the default social arrangement for human being”
    Disagree strongly. Society does not follow from family. Families exist as embedded in a society.
    As a family arises out of the complementarity of the male and the female, the state arises out of the complementarity of the ruling and the ruled elements.
    There are no families and neither there were families that were not embedded in some society. Society is culture- and law-carrying. Society is divison of labor, society is security and possession of territory.

    • The generation I spoke of is logical, rather than historical. It’s not as though first you had some nucleotides, then some cells, then a baby boy, then a baby girl, then a marriage, then a family with children, then a society. The whole thing comes as a package deal. But the logic of society is implicit in the logic of the family, and vice versa. This is why it is that in practice you need the whole hierarchy in order to get any part of it.

      So I don’t think we really disagree on this.

      • I am making logical point as well. No reduction of the City or society to collection of families is tenable. Without society, families are apt to destablize. In fact. Aristotle makes analogy of a cancerous cell in a tissue. A family unbound to the society is like a cancerous cell.

  7. Is the point, that it is now not possible to live in civil peace (i.e be a neighbor) with anyone who is not family (or clan or tribe etc)?
    What makes you think your clan members would agree with your vision of Good?
    It is the shared vision of Good that is all-important in giving political satisfaction to a man. Not being family or clan or tribe or race. And having the shared vision of Good that defines the mystical body that is Nation (Chesterton).

  8. Basically, you are trying to idealize Afghanistan and Somalia and to Americans too !.
    The Western ideal is otherwise, from Athens onwards, West eschews clannishness and tries to mold individuals as living in mutual civil friendship. It is striking that the words “friend” and “neighbor” form no part of your discourse.

    • Any long lived society would eventually become either one clan or several depending on what kind of restrictions there are in the marriage market.

    • When did I suggest that a familiar society would exclude friendship? Why would it? Why would it be lawless like Somalia?

      You are not being careful enough in thinking about this. Familiarity would not rule out America and replace it with Afghanistan. There are all sorts of things that a familiar society could have in common with our own.

      • Your starting point, I recall, was of realizing the tax collector as an alien BECAUSE he is not family.
        This is pretty much ruling out civic friendship and neighborliness. This is how things are viewed in Somalia.

        It really staggers that you are willing to discard entire Western Civilization for a mere fancy. Precisely what Barzun calls a hankering for primitivism in face of modern complexities and dilemmas.

        You are viewing non-relatives as a corruption. Pray, what will be the status of non-relatives in your familial society? How many relatives will you acknowledge? One thousand, one million?. There are yet 320 million people in America now.

    • Vishmehr, that is an ideal of late Antiquity and Modernity embodied in Roman Law. Kristor’s familiar society resembles that of Europe (or at least Central Europe) up to 11th century before full development of feudalism in High Middle Ages. It is not as foreign to us as it might seem.

      I was surprised conservatives of the 19th century attacked earlier adoption of Roman Law as an attempt to reintroduce pagan norms foreign to Christian societies (they even called it “the real ultramontanism”). Their basic reason was it gives the ruler more power as a lawmaker than the judicial systems of Middle Ages, hence the royal absolutism of early Modernity.

      I am not sure if this view is correct but it makes some sense.

  9. “t is an extraordinary knave who would defraud his own kith and kin.”
    It is infact extraordinary common to defraud one’s kith and kin. Witness disputes and legal wrangling over division of property between siblings.

    It is surprising you suddenly veering to this touching belief in blood. Have you been reading secular right?

    • You aren’t being careful enough. Fraud is different than wrangling over an estate.

      Not that people don’t defraud family. They do. People are knavish.

      Read the post again, and note well how I emphasized the problems endemic to family life, and warned that the familiar society would not be a panacea.

    • Fraud between peoples will always exist, but there is less room for it when you have an ethnically homogeneous society, because people tend to empathize with members of their own race more, so long as they aren’t being indoctrinated in ‘the superiority of the colored man’ mantra that the left pursues daily.

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  12. I think I am very much with you here. As an atheist I don’t understand most atheist in the modern world, somehow their emotions don’t seem to be in the right place. Catholic ideas like Distributism and familiarism would take us closer specifically that kind of utopia that Tolkien described, and as utopias go, would that be a bad one? Why do most atheists seem to want to go toward entirely different utopias, that present isolation as freedom, lack of valuable goals as free play and so on? Purely on an emotional level, perfectly regardless of whether one believes in god or not, a Tolkienesque distributist-familiar utopia is supposed to be emotional satisfying for healthy minded people I think… in fact, what is interesting about Tolkien that while he was Catholic, it is possible have this kind of culture in a world where religious worship or faith plays hardly any role, the divine forces are hidden and unrecognized by most. In other words, Tolkien did an excellent job of selling a Catholic values utopia to atheists and for some weird reason we are not buying it.

    However… even if we wanted it, it hasn’t a snowballs chance in hell because history is determined by war, and war is determined by technology. When Sauron has nukes and Aragorn swords, the utopia is over. For this reason, technological efficiency rules the world and a rooted society would be quickly outcompeted and defeated.

    We are ruled by vagrancy and alienation not because we want it, but because this maximizes economic output, and the issue is not that we are _that_ greedy but plain simply maximal economic output directly determines winning wars and having cultures survive. Bhutan has a charming medieval culture but when Beijing decides it is a part of Tibet and hence theirs… they have no chance.

    This is why it works like this.

    • But I’m pretty sure that vagrancy and alienation *don’t* maximize economic output. It seems likely to me that, being in better accord with human nature, a familiar society would out-produce an alienated society. And there is no inherent contradiction between familiarity, distributed ownership, subsidiarity and locality on the one hand, and the achievement of very large-scale economic cooperation on huge projects on the other. I don’t believe, for example, that the large scale joint stock corporation is inherently at odds with familiarity, any more than the medieval kingdom was. Nor do I see any necessary contradiction between familiarity, etc., and high technology. Finally, I don’t see why there could not be a superpower that was familiar. The large will tend to gobble up the small; but I see no reason why largeness must drive out smallness; states don’t eliminate cities, after all.

      • >But I’m pretty sure that vagrancy and alienation *don’t* maximize economic output. It seems likely to me that, being in better accord with human nature, a familiar society would out-produce an alienated society.

        Sadly no. One thing I always keep seeing is the ever increasing power of employers over moving people around. I.e.people can often get a raise by moving to another city, state or country, and in many poorer countries or regions find it hard to make living unless they move.

        Another and strongly related note is specialization. Suppose your expertise is in the quality management module (QM) of the SAP software, what do you think, how many experts of such a narrow field does a city of 1-2M people require? Maybe five. So they move around.

        Economic theory is really clear here: the more fluid a market is, the more efficient it is – and employment is a market, if people turn down an offer which requires relocation but offers 10% more pay, it is likely they are also turning down an opportunity to produce 10% more.

        Cooperation of the small acting as large is workable – this is really what Distributism is about – but still there is the inherent problem of concentration. If transport costs were 0, it would make economic sense to produce all the shoes in the world in one city, simply because there is a lot of advantage in an economy of numbers, of people of the same expertise mixing with each other and so on, just look at the Silicon Valley, their product is the most non-local one and yet they benefit from physically talking to each other and being in the same physical place.

        I think this is really clear here – every town has their own local IT guy, and they hardly do more than customer support. Put a lot of them into one Silicon Valley type of place and you have an explosion of productivity.

        This means you can have property distributed in many hands but not in many places. The future looks like a hive-city…

        Putting it differently, I simply don’t know what else a guy who studied mining engineering could but to move somewhere where there are mines. Of course, we could turn this question around: could we have people studying whatever makes sense in their region? Could we perhaps have whole dynasties in the same industry?

      • These are again all really great points. But I have to emphasize again that the familiar society would be radically different in any number of ways than anything we have experienced, or thought. It is quite possible that a familiar society would handle concentration of talents (and other resources) of the sort we see in Silicon Valley in ways that would never occur to us *from the perspective of our alienated society.* I can’t see how it might, but then I just started thinking about the familiar society a couple weeks ago, and haven’t had much time to think about it since. I will however just say this: since the very beginning of cities, there have been streets and quarters specializing in this or that trade or activity. These concentrations have not prevented primarily familiar modes of organization. Nor do other forms of organization – the guild, the corporation, etc. – necessarily contravene familiarity.

        I’ll leave it at that for now. The points you raise are really interesting to me, and I shall think about them.

      • Keep in mind though that evil always has more material options than good (because morality constrains action over and above material constraints); and that material optimization is wickedness.

        I think it is correct to suggest that the familiar society will be a happier and more well-adjusted society. But it does not follow that it will maximize materially possible “success” along some particular material axis or economic index: it will not.

      • I take economic optimality properly speaking to indicate the morally best – ergo, aesthetically and hedonically best and most utile – mix of the production of all relevant goods, whether or not they are materialized (most will be; e.g., even say the disposition of a soul toward contemplation of the Good is going to find material expression in his acts and in the condition of his body). This optimality of production will result in a polity that has the optimum resources – material, intellectual, moral – to deal with challenges. Does the survival of such a society in competition with strong and vicious adversaries push its optimum so as to include in it the production of lots of tanks? It will produce lots of tanks.

        If we define optimality of production more narrowly as the maximum output of some material product x or index y in particular, then yes, the familiar society is unlikely to achieve that sort of optimality. But then, it won’t be interested in just x or y – no society ever actually is, in practice, no matter what x or y might be. And the reason is not far to seek: optimality in respect to x or y is not true optimality in respect to reality. I.e., it just isn’t optimality, period full stop. And, in the perspective of millennia, that sort of obsession with x or y is rare and evanescent, because obsessed societies are deformed and disordered by their monomanias, and so are brittle, fragile organizations, extremely vulnerable to the challenges of nature and of their nimbler and more sensible, intelligent and protean competitors (whether virtuous or vicious). They get conquered, and vanish. Viz., the West, right now.

      • Kristor:

        I take economic optimality properly speaking to indicate the morally best – ergo, aesthetically and hedonically best and most utile – mix of the production of all relevant goods …

        The danger there is your take on economic optimality reducing to an empty tautology: if it is better (under the circumstances) for Society X to be materially poorer but happier, or even unhappier and poorer in the here-and-now but better off spiritually, that condition would nevertheless (directly contrary to ordinary use of terminology) represent “economic optimality”.

        As soon as “economic optimality” becomes something less tautological – as soon as it becomes materially measurable and a recognizable cognate of what people generally mean by the term “economics” – pursuit of it is necessarily wicked.

        On the other hand, if “economic optimality” just is the Good then there is no point in using a distinct term for it.

      • Fair enough. In practical terms, however, it seems to me at least that the correlation between righteousness and prosperity is in general extremely tight. Proverbs is all over this. If you set up your economy in a way that disagrees with the Natural Law – with, that is to say, reality – then you are going to get crushed by a society that has set itself up to agree with that Law. Because its decisions will be informed by notions that are false or wicked, your society will make fundamental mistakes in its allocation of resources that the more based and prudent society is more likely to avoid. Your society will be somewhat deranged, and weakened, vis-à-vis its more rational competitors.

        Likewise for a life, or a firm.

        The mistake you notice is of putting the cart before the horse. If you pursue righteousness, you’ll probably be happy to boot. If you pursue happiness, then you are making a category error: happiness is a side effect of the main thing, which is doing the right. Genuine happiness cannot be got by the direct pursuit of it. The pursuit of happiness in itself is more likely to lead to wickedness than not – and then, eventually, to the wages of wickedness: unhappiness.

        Likewise with an economy, if you pursue GDP growth, rather than economic rationality, then your search is going to be aimed, not just at the wrong thing, but at the wrong *sort* of thing. You’ll do all sorts of irrational things to goose GDP, rather than sticking to things that are rational in their own right – and that, ceteris paribus, will have the long term result of increasing GDP in a healthy way.

        For policy makers as morally stupid as ours, GDP data and the knowledge of how to goose them are rather like the little lever that the mouse can use to send a delicious electrical stimulus to his limbic system.

      • Kristor:
        I don’t think you and I are quite to full agreement yet. Just for example, in your previous comment “GDP” is not an unqualified good to pursue even as a side effect (pornography production and consumption, manufacture of contraceptives, etc are all wrapped up in it, just for example). And GDP is just a goal, not a series of choices to achieve it.

        So anyway, there is I think more to my objection than just that economic optimization puts the cart before the horse. Economic optimization is always and necessarily wicked (that is, contrary to morality), even when (unlike in the case of GDP) the proximate goal is an unqualified good; because a ‘system’ unconstrained by morality has a vastly larger permutation space of options to choose from, paths between here-now and whatever the goal happens to be.

        The amoral materially optimal path to any optimized material prosperity measure will always (other than in trivial cases) involve doing evil in order that good may come of it.

      • All actual systems are constrained by God, so I don’t think that there can be any such actual thing as a system absolutely unconstrained by morality, except (perhaps) in a realm of abstract intellectual analysis – the same realm where there could be such a thing, for example, as prime matter. “Optimum” *literally means* “best.” Applications wherein “best” is not intended to imply “morally best” would seem to call for some modifier. “Best at jumping,” for example. Being the best jumper might not be best absolutely in a situation where best painting was called for.

        It could be argued that “economic” is such a modifier. But I don’t think it modifies optimum enough to do the job you want it to do, because the “op” in “optimum” comes from the same PIE root that gives us “opera” and “operation:” op, meaning resources, wealth, capacity to perform work. What is optimum is causally most potent. And what is morally defective, being ipso facto ontologically vitiated to some degree, is not as potent as it might be. It is, precisely, suboptimal: less than the best.

        The very notion of optimality would seem therefore to imply economic success: best *ceteris paribus,* best mutatis mutandis.

        Does “material” modify “optimum” the way you want it to? When push comes to shove, I am inclined to think not: all actual matter is constrained by God, so it is all constrained by morality.

        In the rather sloppy common parlance “economic” and “material” are taken to mean “amoral.” But those denotations don’t quite work when it comes down to brass tacks. *All* change in this world is materially implemented – i.e., has an effect on the configuration of corporeal things – and is economic in nature – i.e., affects the configuration of the household.

        To equate optimality with the moral perfection of a creaturely decision or utility function or circumstance or outcome is not to equate it with the Good himself.

      • Kristor:
        Well, I think that either there is probably something basic wrong with your picture of things or that your use of terms is esoteric enough to render discussion difficult-to-impossible. In terms of material capacity to achieve proximate goals, it is clear that at least sometimes the morally wrong choice has greater potency than the morally good choice. That this is pervasively the case is more a matter of observation, but it only has to be the case once in order for what I take you to be arguing (given the caveat about terminology) to be false.

        That is why morally bad choices are capable of tempting us in the first place: it isn’t always and in every case pure illusion that the thief can get the money he wants faster and with less effort by stealing rather than working, or that the company can produce more profit by dumping toxic waste in the river, or that an injustice can be avoided by lying.

        I’ve seen this kind of attempt to frame the temptation to do evil as pure illusion before, and there is indeed a sense – a teleological sense – in which doing evil is ultimately irrational. But nobody really believes that crime never pays proximately, because our lying eyes say differently.

        This is kind of like Leibnitz/Voltaire’s (IIRC) “best of all possible worlds” argument over the problem of evil. Understanding that there are logical limits to our capacity to criticize God is all well and good; but it isn’t a painkiller and it doesn’t fill empty bellies.

      • It’s a question of perspective. The narrower and more foreshortened my perspective, the more appealing is the wicked shortcut to some hedonic reward; and vice versa. In other words, the more truly I see things – i.e., the closer I get to the Divine perspective on them – the more I realize that what is best mutatis mutandis might be painful for me in the short term.

        I take “optimal” to mean what is truly best, rather than what is best to a deranged intellect.

        Meta: I have no doubt that there is something suboptimal about my perspective on things!

      • Kristor:

        The narrower and more foreshortened my perspective, the more appealing is the wicked shortcut to some hedonic reward …

        The main point is that immoral shortcuts to hedonic rewards exist and are not merely illusory; so, correspondingly, maximizing hedonic rewards given a finite material capacity to produce them (under given circumstances) is intrinsically wicked.

        It follows that a good society (a society constrained to making morally good choices) will in fact produce less, in terms of hedonic rewards, than an amoral society could in principle produce starting from the same initial conditions.

        There is no getting around the basic fact that morality constrains action, and the consequences of that fact. We can insist as conversational jargon that the term “optimization” refers to the Good generally speaking, etc, but that doesn’t change the deontological fact that a good society is more constrained, in terms of production of hedonic rewards (or achievement of proximate goals more generally), than an amoral society.

      • The main point is that immoral shortcuts to hedonic rewards exist and are not merely illusory; so, correspondingly, maximizing hedonic rewards given a finite material capacity to produce them (under given circumstances) is intrinsically wicked.

        Maximizing hedonic reward over some proximal period is not optimization. And while hedonic rewards are nice, they are not the summum bonum for a given creature in a given circumstance; not always, anyway. Chasing hedonic rewards is like pursuing happiness or higher GDP. It mistakes the sizzle for the steak.

        It follows that a good society (a society constrained to making morally good choices) will in fact produce less, in terms of hedonic rewards, than an amoral society could in principle produce starting from the same initial conditions.

        I’m not so sure. I think it likely that an optimal society – a society truly and appropriately fitted to reality in view of human nature – will probably produce more GDP, more hedonic reward, and more happiness per day (averaged over some suitably long number of days) than a society more poorly ordered.

      • Kristor:

        Maximizing hedonic reward over some proximal period is not optimization.

        You keep using that word …

        The longer the conversation goes on, the more convinced I become that you equivocate (or create the appearance of equivocation) between a tautology and an outright falsehood.

        I think telling people that if you do the morally right thing you will prosper in any sort of this-worldly (e.g. economic) terms is dangerous and wrong. Reality isn’t set up that way, at all. Sometimes cowards survive and martyrs die. Sometimes bad societies prosper and good ones die.

      • I didn’t say that righteousness “will” prosper. I said (adding emphases):

        I think it likely that an optimal society – a society truly and appropriately fitted to reality in view of human nature – will probably produce more GDP, more hedonic reward, and more happiness per day (averaged over some suitably long number of days) than a society more poorly ordered.

        It is hard for me to imagine how a poorly ordered society would be more likely to succeed than a properly ordered society. But I can easily see that it might do better in practice, due to any number of historical exigencies. The good do often die young. Who would gainsay it?

        And you are of course correct that in any given predicament the wicked have a lot more practical options than the righteous are going to permit themselves. I just don’t see that it follows from this undoubted fact that the wicked are generally more likely to prosper than the righteous. A policy of honesty, for example, might get you in a pickle now and then, that lying might have got you out of; but for the inveterate liar, all life is a pickle, and he is much more likely to mess up one of the ongoing frauds his lies oblige him to maintain at all times, and so get himself in hot water. That’s why they say that cheaters never prosper – not when the mental and emotional costs of wickedness are taken into account – and that honesty is the best policy.

        These proverbs are not false. Yet obviously wickedness can often seem to work out really well, at least in the short run.

        Nevertheless, doing what is best has the highest probability of good consequences. If it didn’t, then it wouldn’t be unequivocally best. Righteousness isn’t ever a guarantee of good fortune, of course; we’re in the wrong universe for guarantees.

        Put it this way: you say that pursuing maximum hedonic reward, or the like, is inherently wicked. I agree! This is just to say what I have several times said: pursuing maximum hedonic reward is not optimum. It is pursuing the effect of what is good, rather than what is good. All that I add is this: pursuing what *is* optimum is likely – not guaranteed, but likely – to have the side effect of greater hedonic reward – and other measures of merely worldly success – than pursuit of what is less than optimum.

        This does seem to me to be practically tautological; it is built into the aetymology and root meaning of the word “optimum.” It is to say only that it is best to do what is best.

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