Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Forward Progress” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Touchstone.
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Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society
reviewed by Allan Carlson
Calls for a return to the organic social economy of medieval Europe, as an alternative to the "creative destruction" of industrial capitalism, have been heard since the late nineteenth century. Some of these wound up caught in the dangerous currents of European fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. More creative and useful visions of such a restoration can be found in the "Distributist" theories of the British authors Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton and in the quest by Austrian economist Karl Polanyi for an order in which productive activities would be "embedded" once again in social relationships.
John Horvat II's Return to Order is a fresh and compelling effort toward the same end, albeit in language and examples perhaps more compatible with the twenty-first century. He begins from the traditionalist Catholic worldview of Plinio Correa de Oliveira, the Brazilian professor and political activist who launched the "Tradition, Family and Property" movement in the 1960s. Yet Horvat also ably draws in the historical interpretations of Polanyi, medievalist Fernand Braudel, American man-of-letters Russell Kirk, and sociologist Robert Nisbet, among others. And the author resurrects in new ways the truths to be found in the work of Aristotle, the "first" economist.
The results will be startling for readers accustomed to today's dominant ideological cant, both libertarian and left-libertine. Horvat praises agrarian society, "where the land, besides freely giving its fruits and creating abundant wealth, also creates a sense of self-sufficiency and a strong attachment to property." He lauds medieval guilds "filled with the family spirit," which served as "sources of temperance within society" and as "braking mechanisms that kept in balance the captains of industry of that time." And he affirms "feudal bonds" as sacred Christian forms "permeated by charity and built upon trust and mutual responsibility, generating stable forms of community and leadership."
As implied by these sentiments, Horvat gives special attention to the family as most fully embodying "the ordering principles of autonomy, authority, vital flux, solidarity and subsidiarity." Properly understood, the family is not just its "nuclear" members of mother, father, and children, but "the whole lineage of ancestors and descendants." Moreover, the family serves as the core of a healthy economy, with each wedding signaling "the entry of a new entity into the economy that naturally favors balanced production and consumption."
How might a new "feudal solution" to contemporary moral, social, and economic disorders be found? Believing in the necessity of hierarchy, Horvat sees an opening for new heroes, or "representative characters," who could grow into the natural elite that would lead society back to order and sustainable prosperity. He points to past examples of such figures, ranging from French King Louis IX (St. Louis)—symbolic of a morally responsible medieval aristocracy—to Winston Churchill, who "inspired the best of the English nation."
More recently, he points to Marine Colonel John W. Ripley, whose heroism at Dong Ha Bridge in Vietnam in 1972 has become legendary. (Notably, in light of the Obama administration's relentless new efforts at social engineering within the military, Col. Ripley forcefully argued in Congressional hearings in the 1990s against both "open gays in the military" and "women in combat.") Such persons should become "bourdon souls," Horvat says, serving society like the principal bell of a carillon, to set the tone for the secondary bells and so keep the whole instrument on key.
Given the magnitude of the contemporary social and cultural crisis, some readers may find this prescription too anemic. All the same, it seems clear that a new cadre of spirit-filled leaders will be necessary to "temper and quell the restless spirit of frenetic intemperance" abroad in our time. Return to Order offers a robust and thought-provoking critique of contemporary corruptions and disorders and has the courage to chart a path to a better future. •
Allan Carlson Allan Carlson is President of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society in Rockford, Illinois (www.profam.org). His books include Conjugal America: On The Public Purposes of Marriage and The Natural Family: Bulwark of Liberty. He is married and has four children and is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is a senior editor for Touchstone.
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