What’s a Personalist and How Do I Become One?

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin

New Hope Catholic Worker Farm and Agronomic University in LaMotte, Iowa, is hosting its second week-long intensive on “Growing Roots: Peter Maurin & Economics” July 17-23, 2011.

They included the excellent article Distributism: Ownership of the Means of Production and Alternative to the Brutal Global Market by Louise and Mark Zwick as part of the reading list. Below I’ve highlighted a few sections, but I commend the full article to your reading.

On the Catholic Worker View of Economics

It is very much in the tradition of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to write about economics. Under the editorship of Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker criticized an unbridled capitalism which put the majority of money and resources in the hands of a few big corporations and individuals. The Catholic Workers not only disagreed with industrial capitalism on a massive scale, but presented an alternative economics called distributism-a person-centered economics.

As personalists, Catholic Workers believed there had to be a better way than to have the world run by Standard Oil, General Motors and Henry Ford (today we have the global market, giant corporations, sweatshops, maquiladoras).

Peter and Dorothy recommended the works of G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P., on distributism and R. H. Tawney on capitalism, and their ideas were published in the paper. These writers insisted that all people were created in the image and likeness of God, and should not be treated like cogs in a machine or made to work twelve hours a day in back-breaking work as wage slaves (in coal mines, for example), while large corporations and their directors became fabulously wealthy.

Chesterton, theorist of person-centered economics and critic of the excesses of capitalism, shared the views of the Catholic Workers. He knew that the opinions of Henry Ford (who said that most people preferred the mechanical action of the assembly line and were only fitted for it), were against Catholic teaching on the dignity of the human person. Ford made it clear that most people were not smart enough to do anything except repetitious work. As Chesterton put it in The Outline of Sanity, “It will be noted that Mr. Ford does not say that he is only fitted to mind machines.”

Chesterton argued that the Catholic Church taught that every human being was worth saving. He insisted on “respect for the humanity and dignity of ordinary, shabby, ignorant people.” (Margaret Canovan, G. K. Chesterton: Radical Populist, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977, p. 9).

On “The Invisible Hand” of the Market

Since Adam Smith, the proponents of wealth creation have promised heaven on earth if their ideas were followed: Just believe religiously in the market and allow it absolute freedom, then salvation will come. It is hard to imagine a heaven where one’s creativity and destiny are squandered working on an assembly line or at McDonald’s.

Pope Pius XII went so far as to call the idea that the invisible hand of the market will on its own rather like fate control the world, a “superstition. (Dorothy Day, “Distributism vs. Capitalism,” Catholic Worker, October 1954).

What Are We Talking About When We Say “Capitalism”?

Chesterton knew that when most people spoke of capitalism, they had in mind something quite different than a few very wealthy people controlling everything. To clarify for his readers what he was criticizing, he first described the situation where a few people hold the wealth and all others struggle: “When I say ‘Capitalism,’ I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: ‘That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.” He emphasized that others had something quite different in mind when they spoke of capitalism: “The word… is used by other people to mean quite other things. Some people seem to mean merely private property. Others suppose that capitalism must mean anything involving the use of capital.

“If capitalism means private property, I am capitalist. If capitalism means capital, everybody is capitalist. But if capitalism means this particular condition of capital, only paid out to the mass in the form of wages, then it does mean something, even if it ought to mean something else.

“The truth is that what we call Capitalism ought to be called Proletarianism. The point of it is not that some people have capital, but that most people only have wages because they do not have capital.”

Read the whole article.

Beltway Buzz: D.C.’s Fancy Bees and the ‘First Beehive’ at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave

Fairmont-BeesBees bring joy to life. The more bees there are in the District of Columbia the better off we’ll be. First Lady of Cool Michelle inaugurated the First Beehive last year at the White House along with the First Organic Garden. DCist blogger Vanessa Schipani has a nice update on how those Obama Bees are going. (My favorite part is that White House beekeeper Charlie Brandts rides the subway with his buzzy little friends. Ah yes, it recalls the psalm, ” They surrounded me like bees, they blazed like a fire of thorns” 118:12.)

White House beekeeper Charlie Brandts has transported more than one thousand bees using Metro — on more than one occasion. Brandts was the guest speaker at the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation urban beekeeping course last Monday, the second class in a series of four. A carpenter for the White House, Brandts keeps bees at his home in Maryland. When President Barack Obama got word about Brandts’s hives, a green-eyed commander in chief asked Brandts to set up one for the White House — the First Beehive. In its first full year’s harvest, the hive produced a considerable amount of honey — all told, around 134 pounds — went into the Obama family’s bellies. Fresh honey is delicious, no doubt, but Obama had other, less hedonistic, reasons for harboring thousands of stinging insects next to his organic garden: Bees are pollinators, and bees are dying. A worldwide disappearance of honeybees, known as colony collapse disorder, is thought to result from a combination of disease and environmental factors. …

Urban hives produce exquisite honey. It’s extremely unique and flavorful because the bees collect nectar from myriad types of flowers that grow in our backyards and parks. This is another reason bees should have a home in our cities, especially DC, which has more floral variety than you might imagine. As for living and working alongside a potential enemy — bees will sometimes sting people, of course — it shouldn’t be an issue in a city for which division and acrimony is a cottage industry. As Brandts said, “Bees are more interested in nectar than politics.”–Vanessa Schipani (Read the whole piece here.)

In other news, the luxury hotel chair Fairmont is housing bees on their hotel rooftops around the world, including here in downtown D.C.’s West End neighborhood. So sweet!

In response to the nation’s Honey Bee shortage and as part of the Fairmont Washington DC’s environmental stewardship program, the hotel has recently welcomed 105,000 Italian honey bees to their new home.  The rooftop of The Fairmont Washington, DC is now abuzz with three honey beehives and their residents.  The bees will enhance the hotel’s culinary program along with its interior courtyard garden that already provides fresh herbs and flowers such as edible pansies, and the plants, trees and flowers in the surrounding West End neighborhood.

Peter Lennox: The Origin of ‘Pecking Order’

urbanchickenMy Dad raised chickens in our suburban Sacramento backyard when I was growing up. Their cluck and brrrr and creak formed a soundtrack outside my bedroom window. Many of our legendary family stories involve a chicken in one way or another.

As urban farming gains in popularity and there are debates in D.C. about whether it’s legal to raise chickens at the White House (How About a White House Chicken Flock?), I found Peter Lennox’s recent article Pecking Order to be funny, wry, informative, and even touching.

In addition, the comments from readers are a great plus. They include many stories on the varying levels of chicken intelligence (“they’re not all the sharpest beaks in the coop”) and one reader concludes she’s much rather spend time with her chickens than most of the management consultants she knows.

Enjoy a quick excerpt below:

Keeping chickens may not be the most efficient way to source eggs, of course, but then it depends on what is being measured. I benefit from eggs, mobile garden ornaments, endless amusement and companionship; I even learn from them. My nine-year-old budding evil-scientist son has learnt that evolution can go down as well as up, and that ground-feeding birds can, over generations, get larger and lose the ability to fly. He also discovered that rigging up a chicken catapult baited with corn can improve individuals’ flying skills, but is not likely to reverse the evolutionary trend and is very likely to get you into trouble. Fair enough: he also learnt to take care of them and understand their preferences and behaviour; he teaches them things, and they patiently go along with it as long as some tasty titbit is part of the deal.

Put that way, keeping chickens is a lot more efficient than driving to the supermarket for eggs of unknown heritage. Ours are great eggs with big golden-orange yolks that sit like perfect hemispheres in the pan. Hardly surprising, as these are gourmand chickens: they eat what we eat (chicken excepted, of course). They like sweetcorn, peas, pasta and rice. They love steak and cooked bacon rind. In the course of evolution, I don’t know where chickens developed a taste for cooked pig. Maybe a freak accident: a bolt of lightning; a forest fire; an unfortunate pig … They also like prawns, salmon, cake and bread, and ironically are rather partial to sage and onion stuffing. They are also fans of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, carrot tops, cabbage leaves, grass, shoots – especially the ones you’ve just planted. And they turn all this rather efficiently into eggs and excrement.

Read the rest of Peter Lennox’s Pecking Order.

Obamas’ Sharin’ of the Green

Well, it’s happened. The famous line from the musical Hello, Dolly! has come true. “Money is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about, encouraging young things to grow.”

Not only is President Obama spreading ‘Bama Bucks like night soil on the languorous fields of the American economy, but Mrs. Obama is getting her hands dirty with a little Victory gardening of her own.

The kids from Bancroft elementary school — located in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, one over from Columbia Heights — digging and turning up the White House “back 40” (aka the South Lawn). The planting list includes: spinach, broccoli, various lettuces, kale, collard greens, assorted herbs, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries.

For some reason, they are not planting corn. No doubt White House insiders will uncover the reason soon. My guess is that Big Corn exerted some influence here and didn’t want average citizens getting the idea that they could crowd in on AgriBusinesses profit share.

Another interesting tidbit is that the White House garden is also planning to host some bee hives and, as Mrs. Obama said, “grow their own honey.” This is great news! But someone needs to let them know that currently it is illegal to keep bees inside the District. They are considered “livestock” by the District agriculture code. While I’m sure that the White House falls under a federal law, not District law, I’m hoping the hives on the South Lawn will bring a big boost to the renegade bee-keeping revolution that’s been quietly raging in the District over the past few years. Maybe the apiarists can finally come out of the shadows.

Check out the video here:

The First Lesson in Agriculture

In further thoughts on foodsheds, I once interviewed the wonderful farmer-poet Wendell Berry who said:

When you take away the subsistence economy, then your farm population is seriously exposed to the vagaries of the larger economy. As it used to be, the subsistence economy carried people through the hard times, and what you might call the housewife’s economy of cream and eggs often held these farms and their families together. The wives would go to town with eggs and cream once a week, buy groceries with the proceeds, and sometimes come home with money. Or they’d sell a few old hens, that sort of thing.

So that’s the first lesson to learn about agriculture, as far as I’m concerned: It needs a sound subsistence basis. People need to feed themselves, next they need to feed their own communities. That’s what we’re working for now. We want to develop a local food economy that local producers will supply and that the local consumers will support. It’s ridiculous that we should be importing food into this state while our farmers are suffering.

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